The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has released its preliminary report on the Tennessee bus accident that left six students dead and 31 injured. Although the investigation is not complete, the preliminary report does set out some of the events on November 21, 2016, that led up to the devastating Chattanooga, Tennessee school bus crash. In the wake of the fatal bus accident, calls have been renewed for increased safety measures on school buses.
Preliminary Report on Chattanooga Bus Crash: Driver Lost Control on Curve
According to the NTSB’s report, the driver of the bus, Johnthony Walker, was not following the usual bus route and was driving along Talley Road in a section that has a speed limit of 30 miles per hour. Walker initially encountered a horizontal curve to the left, which has a posted speed of 25 miles per hour. The bus navigated that bend in the road, but Walker lost control of the bus as he attempted to drive through a second curve to the right. The bus then left the roadway and collided with a utility pole.
“Following the collision, the bus overturned onto its right side and subsequently collided with a tree, which caused the roof of the bus to collapse inward,” the preliminary report states.
Earlier reports stated the bus was traveling at least 20 miles per hour faster than the speed limit in the area.
Six Lives Lost in School Bus Crash
The yellow bus was a 2008 model that was capable of carrying 84 passengers. At the time of the devastating school bus accident, the driver and 37 students from kindergarten to grade five were onboard. The students were being transported home from Woodmore Elementary School.
Five of the children died at the scene, while a sixth died of injuries later in hospital. Dozens more were injured.
NTSB: Johnthony Walker Negative for Alcohol, Drugs
Following the crash, Walker was charged with a variety of counts, including vehicular homicide, reckless endangerment and reckless driving. The NTSB preliminary report notes that Walker was employed with Durham School Services since April 2016 and had a current license and commercial driver medical certificate. He also underwent preliminary toxicology tests that were negative for alcohol and illicit drugs.
A federal lawsuit was filed against Hamilton County Schools, Durham School Services and the Transportation Supervisor, accusing them of not taking reasonable steps to protect students on the bus. The lawsuit alleges Walker was “sadistic” and drove recklessly. According to reports, parents and students had previously complained about Walker’s driving, but nothing was done to fix the situation before the tragic Tennessee bus accident took place.
One parent complained that Walker slammed the brakes on the bus, causing children to fall out of their seats. Meanwhile, one student complained Walker drove too fast while another said they need seatbelts on their bus. The principal of Woodmore Elementary School reportedly also expressed concerns that Walker drove too fast when leaving the school grounds.
Lawmakers Push for Safety Reforms
Following the two deadly school bus crashes in November—the Tennessee bus accident and a crash in Baltimore that killed six people—lawmakers are pushing for changes to school bus safety. As the NTSB preliminary report notes, many federal regulations do not apply to buses transporting school children between school and home.
Maryland Congressman Elijah Cummings and other congressmen have called for a hearing to determine if policy changes should be made to increase protections for children on buses.
“We urge the [House Transportation] Committee to utilize its authority over the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to probe what more can be done to protect the nation’s schoolchildren, and whether any changes to federal law are warranted,” a letter from Cummings and his colleagues states.
A report recently released by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) might bolster the lawmakers’ requests. Released on January 12, 2017, the report, “School Bus Safety: Crash Data Trends and Federal and State Requirements,” found states vary widely on school bus driver training requirements. Although Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations set out minimum training requirements for entry-level driver training, these requirements were only issued in December 2016, and there are no minimum hours set out for school-bus-specific knowledge and behind-the-wheel training.
While Pennsylvania requires entry-level drivers to complete a minimum of 20 hours of specific training related to school buses, and an additional 10 hours of refresher training every four years, Tennessee requires four hours of refresher training every year, but does not have any minimum hours for entry-level bus driver training.
According to the report, there are an average of 115 fatal crashes involving a school bus each year. Issues with the school-bus driver were involved in 27 percent of those crashes.
NTSB Investigation on Tennessee Bus Accident Will Continue
The preliminary report on the Tennessee school bus accident is not considered the final say in what caused the crash. The NTSB will continue the investigation and may make corrections or add information as it becomes available. The agency is still collecting and analyzing data from systems on the school bus that record and transmit information related to the crash.
“All aspects of the crash remain under investigation as the NTSB seeks to determine the probable cause, with the intent of issuing safety recommendations to prevent similar crashes,” the agency writes.
Whether those safety recommendations come in time to prevent another fatal school bus crash remains to be seen.