NTSB Final Report on 2010 Missouri School Bus Crash Uncovers Troubling Issues

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The National Transportation Safety Board says driver inattention, faulty school bus brakes and inadequate following distances all contributed to a fatal crash in Gray Summit, Mo., 18 months ago that involved two school buses and killed a high school band member.

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First off, Daniel Schatz, the son of Republican state House candidate Dave Schatz, started the chain-reaction crash on Aug. 5, 2010, as he read five texts and sent another six in the 11 minutes prior to crashing his GMC pickup into the rear of a Volvo tractor trailer that had come to a stop in a construction zone on Interstate 44. Then, a school bus driver slammed into the rear of the Schatz’s truck, forcing it on top of the tractor trailer, and seconds after the second school bus struck the first.

As a result, Schatz’s truck was bent into a “U” shape and was killed instantly.

The two buses were ferrying 54 members of the St. James High School band to the Six Flags St. Louis amusement park. Jessica Brinker, a 16-year-old band member was killed, and 35 bus passengers and the two bus drivers were injured, as was the driver of the tractor-trailer.

NTSB first announced preliminary results from the crash investigation in December, when it called on all states and D.C. to enact legislation that bans the use of all portable electronic devices by drivers, a recommendation it reiterated in its final report on Feb. 3. The agency urged NAPT, NASDPTS and NSTA to communicate details of the final report to all members.

NTSB said the first bus driver was watching a motorcoach that had pulled off to the right shoulder just after the first crash occurred. She then checked her mirrors and did not see the pile-up ahead until it was too late. The driver didn’t even have enough time to brake. The second bus driver, according to NTSB, was following too closely behind the first, and didn’t have enough time or road space to completely veer onto the right shoulder without clipping the right-rear end of the first bus.

The second bus driver’s following distance was 2.5 to 3.5 seconds, when the Missouri Commercial Driver License Manual dictates the following distance should by 4.5 seconds. NTSB said the required distance would have given the driver enough time to miss the first bus. That collision killed Brinker, who was seated next to the window in the last row of the first bus.

In its investigation, NTSB discovered that both school buses also had brake problems. The first bus had faulty brake lines; in fact one had ruptured. The other bus  had an out-of-place ABS wheel speed sensor in the other were also to blame. NTSB also said the school bus operator, Copeland Bus Company, was found to have deficient maintenance records, and the owner and mechanic had no formal training in servicing heavy-duty passenger vehicles.

NTSB also found fault with the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education’s (MDESE) oversight of school bus inspections, as both buses had recently passed their annual inspections with no cited problems. MDESE was urged by NTSB to improve its training school bus drivers on the risks of inattention, the need for proper road scanning and safe following distances.

NTSB called for revised Missouri state regulations for safety reviews of motor carriers that are involved in pupil transportation and an audit of the state vehicle inspection program. Missouri was also asked to revise its school bus evacuation regulations. NTSB also called for a modification to state school bus inspections procedures to identify all brake defects during biannual inspections.

Because on-site emergency personnel and school bus evacuees reported that clothing was snagged on emergency window exits, NTSB asked NHTSA to revise FMVSS 217 or corresponding lab test procedures to eliminate the potential of latch plates or other objects from protruding into window opening space, even when exit window meets the opening size requirements. Until then, NTSB recommended that NHTSA advise states on how to minimize potential school bus evacuation delays for windows with these protruding latches or windows that require additional manual assistance to remain open during an evacuation.

NTSB also renewed its request that NHTSA complete rulemaking on adaptive cruise control and collision warning systems for commercial vehicles. FMCSA was again urged to develop a comprehensive medical oversight programs for interstate commercial drivers.

FMCSA was asked once again to require all heavy commercial vehicles to be equipped with video event records to capture data on driver behavior, and on the outside environment and roadway, in the event of a sudden deceleration crash.