(Monday and Tuesday on 10News at 6, why despite school bus safety problems, experts say children are safer on their way to school when riding the bus.)
KNOXVILLE - Parents of roughly 21,000 Knox County school students rely every day on bus drivers to safely get their children to and from school.
But a recent study commissioned by Knox County Schools found in the last half decade the school district has double the number of crashes it should for a district of its size.
And in the past three years alone, more than 60 bus drivers were to blame for some 120 wrecks.
That includes the three lives lost in the December 2014 accident that killed two elementary students and a teacher’s aide.
As a result, some officials believe, ridership has dropped.
Still, local, state and federal leaders also maintain that the bus – not a parent’s car – is the safest route to school.
“They’re bright yellow, they have a known route, a trained driver, you have side wall strength, you have roof strength, there are flashing lights, they are designed to be observed,” said Kris Poland, a senior biomechanical engineer who investigates crashes for the National Transportation Safety Board, including the one in Knoxville. “People know how to act around them in most cases.”
About five children die every year inside a school bus compared to 37,000 deaths inside cars, according to federal reports.
Still, school officials, investigators and those whose family members died on the afternoon of Dec. 2, 2014, say buses can be safer.
“I can tell you we talk about it (December 2014) a lot in this building,” said interim Knox County Schools Superintendent Buzz Thomas. “In fact we’ve been working nonstop over the summer trying to make sure our buses are as safe as they can possibly be. With new equipment, new cameras, new radios, new training for drivers. Trying to put more adults on buses to have less distractions.”
For Sharon Glasper, whose daughter Seraya died in the Knoxville crash, that’s a start.
“We expect them to go to school and come back,” she said. “For them to not come back, from something that could have been prevented? Something needs to be done. It has to be heard. We need everything done.”
Glasper also wants state leaders to revisit a proposal to make school bus seat belts mandatory.
State Rep. Eddie Smith, R-Knoxville, also said that’s a possibility.
“We’re trying to figure out the best paths moving forward,” said the local Legislative delegation’s chairman. “I believe student safety is going to take precedent over anything else.”
CRASH CREATES CHANGES AS RIDERSHIP DROPS
The fallout and subsequent changes to school bus policy following the 2014 fatal crash were intense.
The two investigating agencies – the Knoxville Police Department and the NTSB – placed the blame on 48-year old bus driver James Davenport.
Authorities said he was driving bus No. 44 while texting. He made a sharp left turn, crossed a concrete median, and crashed into another school bus on Asheville Highway near Governor John Sevier Highway.
The violent collision flipped Bus No. 57 from Sunnyview Primary School on its side. The impact killed six-year-old Zykia Burns, seven-year-old Seraya Glasper, and 46-year-old teacher's aide Kimberly Riddle.
Davenport, who suffered severe injuries during the crash, died June 1, 2015, at his home.
In the months following the crash, the school system commissioned an independent study, hiring Missouri-based School Bus Consultants.
The company reported a series of problems inside KCS, including aging buses, poorly trained drivers and a lack of oversight.
In addition, crash data from June 2011 to December 2015 noted that KCS buses were involved in almost 430 reported crashes, which ranged from drivers clipping mirrors to fatal accidents.
The study didn't determine who was at fault during the five-year period, but said in 2014 and 2015, there were 85 crashes and 58 were the fault of the driver.
The Council of Great City Schools, which bills itself as an advocate for "America's urban public schools," sets a performance guideline of 1 to 1.5 crashes per 100,000 miles. The KCS performance measure is almost double that at 2.8 crashes.
“We had a drop off in a number of children riding the buses,” Thomas said. “That’s probably not surprising given the consultant’s report that indicated that we were having more accidents than we should have had.”
Ridership dropped about 5 percent and now stands at roughly 21,000.
After the report, the school system moved quickly to enhance its transportation program.
Initiatives included adding additional cameras to the buses; creating a “ride check” program that puts uniformed officers on the buses so they can assess drivers; and eliminating contractors who have not conformed to the standards.
“Parents have every reason to expect the best out of us,” Thomas, who’s served as KCS superintendent since June, said. “They are entrusting their most precious resource to us. Our kids are the most important thing in our lives. So the most important job in the world is getting those kids back and forth safely to and from school. We are going to earn that trust back that we have lost with some of our parents.”
At the urging of the December 2014 crash victims’ families, state leaders also stepped in.
Last year, the General Assembly passed law that raised the penalty for bus drivers caught texting and driving to a class A misdemeanor which carries a minimum of a $1,000 fine, up to 30 days in jail and the potential permanent loss of the CDL endorsement on their license.
“Which is to say your focus has to be on those kids – it can be nowhere else,” said Smith, who serves on a Legislative transportation committee. “Put your focus there and keep it there.”
In addition, lawmakers mulled whether to require seat belts on buses.
The measure failed earlier this year, but state leaders expect to discuss it again this January.
PUSH FOR SEAT BELTS UNDER DEBATE
Thomas calls seats belts on buses “a blessing and a curse.”
“It depends on what kind of accident you have,” he said. “If a school bus catches on fire as vehicles often do when they’re in crashes kids who are in seat belts have a harder time getting out. Or if a school bus ends up in, God forbid, water (the) kids can drown.”
At this point, he said the school system doesn’t plan to put seat belts on the buses unless the NTSB make such a recommendation.
And that’s not going to happen – at least for now.
The reason is two-fold: Officials feel buses are safe right now, and seat belts are expensive.
Kris Poland, one of the federal investigators who worked the 2014 Knoxville bus crash, concedes that the “three-point seat belt” – the kind typically found in most vehicles – provides “the safest environment” for bus riders.
She said 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.
“They’re kind of in this compartmentalized cocoon,” Poland said. “The problem happens in side impacts or rollovers.”
But, there’s no so-called cocoon to protect a child from traveling the width of a bus that’s been hit from the side. That’s where a seat belt would provide the most protection – by keeping the child in place. In Knoxville’s case, officials don’t know if seat belts would have helped the victims, since no video from the crash was available.
The NTSB hasn’t pushed for a sweeping change nationwide. Poland said federal officials recognize that not all districts can afford to install seat belts on all buses.
“One of the things that we don’t want to have happen is that fewer buses are purchased and less children ride on school buses because we recognize that school buses are the safest way to go to and from school,” she said. “We’re very cautious. We don’t want to have any unintended negative consequences.”
State records suggest that each bus would cost $13,000 to retrofit. For Knox County’s 350 buses that would be $4.5 million.
And statewide, officials estimated the cost would be as much as $33 million per year for the next seven or so years, according to a fiscal report.
Glasper, whose daughter Seraya died in the Knoxville crash, said lack of funding is not a valid argument.
“You can’t put an amount on saving lives,” she said.
Glasper worked to toughen the laws against those who drive a school bus while texting.
It isn’t enough, she said.
“That’s one step closer to probably 30 more steps that needs to be done,” she added. “It’s a start but more can be done. A lot more can be done.”