Federal highway officials have begun reconstructing the final minutes before Monday’s school bus crash that killed five Chattanooga elementary students.
The move comes as a Southeast Tennessee community mourns and some state lawmakers again call for new seatbelt laws.
Authorities say 24-year-old Johnthony Walker was “well above” the posted 30 mph speed limit when authorities say he apparently lost control of the bus, veered from the road and smashed into a tree that almost split the bus in half.
Police on Monday charged him with five counts of vehicular homicide, reckless endangerment and reckless driving.
Four girls and one boy from Woodmore Elementary School died. Twelve students are in the hospital.
“Our mission is to determine not just what happened but why it happened and to make recommendations so it doesn’t happen again,” said Christopher Hart, chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board.
In the hours following the 3 p.m. Monday wreck, authorities issued a warrant to remove the vehicle's so-called black box and review video evidence, Chattanooga Police Chief Fred Fletcher said. In addition, the NTSB sent a team to investigate.
The box, an event-data recorder, should provide some insight into what happened. The recorder will note the bus’s acceleration, deceleration, speed and whether the brake pedal was used. The reconstruction team also will look into a number of factors that could have played a role into the accident, including the vehicle, the driver, weather or any combination.
“As I understand it from preliminary reports, one of the issues they’re most concerned with is the speed of the bus, and that’s one of the things the black box will indicate is what the speed was at the time of loss of control and during the sequence of the impact,” said Steven Richards, a national bus safety expert and director of the Southeastern Transportation Center at the University of Tennessee.
Monday’s tragedy – like a December 2014 Knox County bus crashed that killed two students and a teacher’s aide – has renewed questions and calls about the safety of buses and, particularly, why they don’t have seatbelts.
The NTSB, a fact-finding congressional arm that investigates accidents and makes safety recommendations to federal leaders, has stopped short of recommending belts on buses.
However, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, a regulatory authority, last year did an about-face last year and reversed its longtime stand on seatbelts and school buses.
The recommendation? To equip all buses with three-point lap and shoulder seatbelts, the kind typically found in most vehicles.
State Rep. Gerald McCormick, a Chattanooga Republican, on Tuesday said he’s looking into legislation to retrofit every bus in the state with a seatbelt.
Former East Knoxville Democrat, state Rep. Joe Armstrong called for similar laws in early 2015 after the fatal Knoxville crash, although his proposal would have put seatbelts on new buses only. The bill failed.
A fiscal note released at the time said the plan would cost as much as $33 million per year for the next seven or so years.
Retrofitting buses would cost an estimated $13,000 for each bus. That amounts to $4.5 million for Knox County’s 350 buses.
“The number of children actually killed or seriously injured in school bus accidents is relatively low. Of course any single death or serious injury is one too many,” Richards told WBIR 10News. “But if you look at the statistics you can make a case for the money that it will cost to equip all of our school buses with seatbelts – which would be estimated at a billion dollars – that money could be better spent and save more lives in other uses.”
Richards added: “We haven’t seen a spike in the number of children killed, but the number certainly isn’t going down.”
On average, about five children die every year inside a school bus compared to 37,000 deaths inside cars, according to federal reports.
School buses are required to have high, padded seat backs to provide protection from front-end and rear-end crashes. A frontal crash will force a child forward and into the seat where the weight is distributed over a large surface.
“It’s called compartmentalization, and we do have high seat backs that are padded, that they basically put the child in a protective cage and that does help a lot,” Richards said. “But in terms of accidents such as we saw in Chattanooga, where’s there’s an overturned bus, there can be ejections. That’s something that compartmentalization just really can’t solve, that it does take law and shoulder belts.”