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10 Safety Innovations Arising from School Bus Tragedies

School buses transport thousands of children every day. According to the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), they are the safest vehicles on the road. This is due to the safety advancements school buses have undergone throughout decades of service and in response to several tragedies taking place. Collectively, these advancements have helped save lives and prevent accidents. Here is a list of 10 tragedies that resulted in safety advancements for school buses.

10 Railroad Crossings

Utah is known for many things, but a little-known fact about the state is that it happens to be the location of one of the worst transportation accidents in history. On the morning of December 1, 1938, a terrible blizzard swept through the Salt Lake Valley. Farrold Silcox was a school bus driver who had been driving for three years. He had 39 passengers after making all of his stops. On his way to Jordan High School in Sandy, there was a railroad crossing. Farrold stopped and looked both ways, then proceeded over the tracks.

As the bus was midway across the tracks, a freight train slammed into the bus, dragging it half a mile (0.8 kilometers) north before it was able to stop, killing 24 passengers and the driver. It was determined that the blizzard had hindered the bus driver’s ability to see the incoming train. Now, whenever a commercial vehicle is carrying passengers, the driver is required to stop and open the door and window in order to listen for an approaching train.[1]

9 Manufacturing

School buses have evolved a lot since they were first introduced in the late 19th century. Every iteration of a school bus has been an improvement on the previous one in regard to safety. The next entry is the cause for one of these changes. On the morning of May 21, 1976, Evan Prothero drove a 1950 Crown with 53 passengers. After traveling for an hour, a buzzer began going off in the driver’s compartment, so he decided to exit the highway.

As he made his exit, he realized he was unable to lower his speed. The bus then hit a guardrail and went over its side, falling off the ramp and into a dirt field below. This caused the roof of the bus to collapse, resulting in 28 deaths and several injuries. The NTSB determined that the deaths were attributed to the construction of the bus itself. Regulations later required manufacturers to build sturdier buses that could withstand rollovers and other damage.[2]

8 Emergency Exits

The following entry resulted in an enormous impact on school bus safety even though the bus was not actually on a school activity trip. On the evening of May 14, 1988, several children and their chaperones were returning from a trip to King’s Island. Over an hour into the trip home, the bus was hit head-on by a pickup driving northbound on the southbound lanes. The collision of the truck on the bus punctured the fuel tank, igniting the gasoline inside. This set the bus ablaze instantly.

The children scrambled to the rear, which was the only emergency exit. In total, 27 people lost their lives. When the authorities arrived at the scene, it was determined that the driver of the truck was intoxicated. He was charged and sentenced to prison for 16 years. Later, the state of Kentucky, as well as the country, passed legislation that called for more emergency exits on school buses, claiming if the bus had been better equipped, many more lives could have been saved.[3]

7 Brake Training

Like the previous entry, the school bus in question was not on a school trip, but it was transporting several children at the time of its accident. On July 31, 1991, a 1989 Thomas school bus driven by Richard A. Gonzalez Jr. made its way down a steep mountain road. The bus began picking up speed, and he was unable to decelerate. As it continued descending the mountain, the driver started honking at the vehicle in front of him in an attempt to signal something was wrong.

The bus then veered into the opposite lane, passing the vehicle up. It then came to a bend in the road, but Richard was unable to negotiate the curve. The bus skidded, leaving the road at a high rate of speed, rolling down an embankment, and killing seven and injuring 53 others. The accident was largely attributed to the driver’s inability to properly operate the vehicle on a steep grade. In light of the accident, training was improved for drivers to make sure they knew how to travel on mountainous roads.[4]

6 Child Check System

Some accidents are a result of someone not following protocols. In this instance, that resulted in one of the greatest tragedies involving school buses. On the morning of September 11, 2015, Armando Ramirez, a school bus driver for Public Transportation Cooperative in Whittier, California, started his route, picking up his three students and then heading to school to drop them off. After dropping them off, he returned to the transportation yard as usual and went home.

Several hours later, Paul Lee’s body was found lying in a pool of his own vomit inside Armando’s bus. He had unfortunately failed to notice that Paul had never got off the bus that morning to go to school. Once at the yard, Armando failed to follow protocols and check the bus to make sure there was no one in there. It was later determined that the bus driver’s negligence was to blame for the death of the student. As a result, a new law was passed in California stating that all school buses must have a child check system installed to force drivers to check their school buses.[5]

5 Training for Hijacking

The following entry was a horrible experience for everyone involved, but it led to many advancements in the way these situations are handled. On July 15, 1976, Ed Ray, a 55-year-old school bus driver, picked up his students from school. Once on the road, he saw a van blocking the street with a man standing beside it. He slowed down to a stop; the man then approached the bus, holding a weapon. He took over the bus and drove it a mile down the road, where he met with two other men who helped him conceal the bus and take all 26 kids and the bus driver hostage.

The kidnappers drove them around for 11 hours in two modified cargo vans, eventually arriving at a rock quarry in Livermore, California—100 miles (161 kilometers) away. There, they transferred the hostages into a moving van buried in the quarry. Fortunately, the driver and an older boy were able to escape from the now-buried and collapsing van and seek help.

The men were caught and arrested shortly after. Today, several districts and transportation companies train their drivers on what to do if they are hijacked, and many buses now have GPS and video cameras in them, which prove to be very valuable in such a situation.[6]

4 Emergency Response Teams

It’s not always the actual accident that causes death. Sometimes, they are due to aftereffects of the accident; this is evident in the next entry. It was February 28, 1958, and John Alex DeRossett was a 27-year-old bus driver tasked with transporting students to school in Prestonsburg, Kentucky. That morning, he picked up his students and made his way down U.S. Route 23. On the road, there was a tow truck attempting to pull out a pickup from a ditch. As the bus made its way down the road, it clipped the tow truck and made a hard left. This caused the bus to go down an embankment and into the Big Sandy River.

Twenty-two students were able to escape from the single rear emergency exit as the bus was sinking. The remaining 26 students and the bus driver were then dragged down the river and disappeared. The National Guard was dispatched on March 5, 1958. The search lasted days, which caused criticism for being too slow. This brought a change to disaster response by the creation of a disaster response team for the county, making it the first of its kind and inspiring many other similar response teams across the country.[7]

3 School Bus Yellow and Two-Way Radios

The early days of school buses were much more challenging, especially during inclement weather. The following entry is a prime example that devastated one community. Carl Miller set out one beautiful morning in March 1931 to transport his students to school. But by the time he had reached the school, the weather changed drastically, and a blizzard ensued. Carl, along with the only two teachers at the school, decided it would be best if the students returned home for the day. Carl then began down the road, but on his way, he took a wrong turn.

At one point, the bus fell into a ditch, and the engine stalled, stranding the bus driver and its 22 passengers. Carl decided to leave the two older children in charge and set out on foot to look for help. That afternoon, two men found the bus and rescued the children. Unfortunately, the tragedy claimed six lives, including the bus driver’s. After the event, it was determined that school buses should sport a uniform, highly visible color, which became the school bus yellow we know today. In addition, two-way radios were integrated into all school transportation vehicles.[8]

2 Fire Suppression System

It’s easy to think that school buses are so advanced today there is no possible way to make them any safer. This next entry shows that it is far from the truth. Megan Klindt was a 16-year-old student who attended Riverside Community High School. She left her home to wait for her school bus on December 12, 2017. After boarding the bus, the driver, 74-year-old Donald Hendricks, attempted to turn around on the street. He backed up, but unfortunately, the road was narrow, and he went too far back, resulting in the rear of the bus falling into a ditch. Hendricks attempted to get the bus out of the ditch by accelerating, but to no use; the bus wouldn’t budge.

Moments later, the bus was engulfed in flames. The fire was seen by Megan’s family, who quickly called 911. Unfortunately, the fire killed both Megan and Hendricks. A team was sent out by the NTSB to investigate the accident. They concluded the bus driver was unable to safely operate the bus while backing up, and the fire was determined to have developed due to the ignition of fuel on the engine’s turbocharger after it overheated. After the accident, the recommendation was to have all school buses outfitted with a fire suppression system.[9]

1 Responsibility of Operator

Most school bus accidents can be blamed on a malfunctioning bus or an incompetent bus driver. Unfortunately, some accidents happen from sheer bad luck. Royal J. Randle was a 24-year-old World War II veteran who worked for the Lake Chelan School District. On November 26, 1945, Royal did his usual route consisting of picking up students on the west side of Lake Chelan. As Royal drove his school bus through the lakeside roads, it began to snow. Since there was very little snow on the pavement, he didn’t bother putting on snow chains.

The falling snow quickly accumulated on the school bus’s windshield. This caused the windshield wipers to stop working. As it kept accumulating, it caused visibility issues for Royal, and he decided to pull the bus off the road in order to clear the obstruction. As he pulled the bus over, though, he hit a rock, which caused the bus to veer into the 30-foot (9-meter) embankment, rolling over twice and coming to rest with the front end of the bus 5 feet (1.5 meters) underwater.

Five students and one adult were able to escape before the shifted weight of the bus caused it to sink into the lake headfirst. Within six days, divers found a total of seven bodies, including the bus driver’s. The search for the remainder of the passengers was called off shortly after, leaving nine children’s bodies unaccounted for.

The accident was investigated by the Washington State Patrol, who concluded that the poor visibility caused the driver to crash and veer off the road, ultimately driving the bus into the embankment. They went further by saying the school district had the responsibility of discontinuing the operation of the bus when there was inclement weather. Today, bus drivers, as well as the school districts, are responsible for judging when weather conditions are unsafe for pupil transport.[10]

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Written by Valentin Acosta

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