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The Chattanooga School Bus Tragedy

A TRAGEDY FORESHADOWED

On November 21, 2016, a school bus carrying 37 students from Woodmore Elementary School in Chattanooga, Tennessee, careened off a narrow, residential road—not the bus route—and crashed into tree. Five students died that day, and one died later at the hospital. Several more students were in critical condition, and nearly all the students on the bus were injured. It was the deadliest school bus accident in the United States in years.

But it was not unforeseen. The driver of the school bus, Johnthony Walker, had many complaints filed against him by parents of students, students themselves, and school officials. In fact, the school district released 30 pages of complaints and correspondence about Walker after the accident. The complaints primarily dealt with Walker’s excessive speed while driving the school bus, and speed was cited as the likely cause of the horrific crash. Walker’s attitude toward the children was also a subject of the complaints; parents and students reported cussing and purposeful swerving and slamming of brakes that sent children flying from their seats and banging their heads into the bus ceiling. Walker himself had filed reports on approximately a dozen students—in one day—not long before the crash, saying he was frustrated with their lack of respect for him and the behavioral rules for the bus.

Walker also had a prior accident on record. In September 2016, he sideswiped an oncoming car after crossing into oncoming traffic while attempting to negotiate a “blind curve.” No charges were filed in that incident, but a citation for failure to yield was issued. No injuries were sustained in that accident. It is unclear if Durham School Services, a contractor based in Illinois that is Walker’s employer, took any action against Walker after that crash.

In the two weeks leading up to the fatal crash of November 21, the Woodmore Elementary School principal emailed her concerns about Walker’s excessive speed as he pulled out of the school parking lot to Durham. The principal emailed Dunham’s personnel on November 16 and November 18, but he was still behind the wheel of the school bus on November 21, the day of the tragic accident.

Walker, 24, now faces 6 counts of vehicular homicide, reckless driving, and reckless endangerment. He remains in jail until a December 15 court hearing. Walker received his license to drive a school bus in April of 2016.

NEW SAFETY MEASURES ANNOUNCED

The CEO of Durham School Services, David Duke, announced via a video message that his company would be implementing three new safety measures in the wake of the tragic Chattanooga school bus accident. They are the following:

1. a secure, cloud-based complaint-management system so people can report issues quickly;

2. the installation of smart cameras in all buses to record drivers and the roads they drive on;

3. the appointment of a chief safety and data compliance officer.

It is hoped that the above changes will allow any future complaints about a driver like those regarding Walker to reach the appropriate people swiftly so that necessary action can be taken—before tragedy occurs.

WHAT MORE CAN BE DONE

At gadoe.org, Georgia laws for school bus operation and requirements for the initial training program are provided in a handbook. Among other things, the handbook states a minimum age for school bus drivers of 18—meaning that teenagers who have only been driving without another licensed driver in the car for 2 years are allowed by law to transport dozens of children.

The handbook also outlines a training program that consists of a minimum of 12 classroom hours, 6 hours of driving without students, and 6 hours of driving with students. The state legislature may want to look at the sufficiency of this training, especially when it can be combined with a driving age that requires only two years of driving experience.

Another issue that has been on and off the public’s radar is that of requiring seat belts in school buses. The school bus involved in the Chattanooga accident was first used in 2008, and did not have seat belts. The National Transportation and Safety Board, one of the entities investigating the accident, is looking into whether seat belts would have made a difference in injuries and fatalities. Because of the type of crash, and the fact that at least one of the students had written a letter to the school asking for seat belts due to the erratic nature and speed of Walker’s driving, the issue of making seat belts mandatory on school buses is very much on the public’s radar now. Lawmakers in Tennessee are considering new legislation to do just that; perhaps Georgia legislators should consider legislation making seat belts on school buses mandatory as well. Before a tragedy happens.

CONTACT YOUR ATTORNEY

If your child has been injured on a school bus or by an accident involving a school bus, or if you have serious, ongoing concerns about the operation of your child’s school bus, contact Dave Thomas at The Thomas Law Firm for a free consultation regarding your legal rights.

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