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Who is driving your child to school today?

A school bus driver is exempt from the same rules as truck and commercial bus drivers. Some recent tragedies show the fatal consequences of such lax regulations

School bus driver

Today is the first day of school for thousands of children around Michigan. Parents are putting children on school buses at bus stops all over the state. But who exactly is driving that school bus and taking your child to school?

To ask more directly, would you put your child on a school bus with a school bus driver who has an unsafe medical condition (that would disqualify him or her from driving a commercial truck)?

Would you put that child on a bus with a school bus driver who has only logged 10 hours of training to operate a school bus safely? What about with a bus driver who has an unsafe driving record, or a criminal history?

What about a bus driver who has even been arrested for child sexual assault?

You might be unknowingly doing that right now.

There’s a Grand Canyon-sized loophole when it comes to school bus drivers. Many of the basic driver safety requirements that apply to truck drivers, such as with many dangerous medical conditions, do not apply to school bus drivers.

This means that federal safety authorities, state officials and school districts think it’s OK to allow this type of driver to be the caretaker of our most precious cargo, our children, even though these same drivers would be disqualified from driving TV sets or lettuce to stores.

As a truck and bus accident lawyer, I’ve learned this firsthand.

I’ve litigated several tragic bus accident and crashes involving school buses over the past two decades. I remember how bewildered and outraged I felt when I first learned about these lowered safety standards for school bus drivers.

A school bus driver who drives our children requires less training and experience than someone who drives a Greyhound bus. A school bus driver is required to meet lower safety standards than a commercial truck driver who carries heads of lettuce to supermarkets.

Basically, any type of truck or bus driver must comply with higher mandatory safety regulations than a school bus driver who drives our children to school.

Now that the 2017-18 school year is kicking off today for parents all over the state of Michigan, I suggest this is the right time to revisit some of the more alarming safety shortfalls that exist with our school bus drivers.

A school bus driver is exempt from key truck and commercial bus driver safety regulations

The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) has enacted safety regulations to make commercial trucks and buses safer and to protect the public. But not all of these FMCSA regulations apply to school bus drivers. In fact, some of the most important ones do not apply to school bus drivers. A school bus driver is exempt from many of the most important regulations that apply to truck drivers and commercial bus drivers, including:

  • Driver qualification (including physical qualification and medical certification) regulations.
  • Hours-of-service regulations.
  • Vehicle maintenance and repair rules.
  • Bus inspection program requirements.
  • Vehicle operation regulations.
  • Insurance and registration regulations.

Why?

Technically, it is because school buses do not cross state lines (outside of the occasional out-of-state field trip for which the school bus company provides “for-hire” transportation to comply with these higher federal safety standards). School bus routes are local, sometimes no more than 5 or 10 miles from a school.

FMCSA safety regulations for a school bus driver only state that:

  • School bus drivers must have a valid commercial driver’s license (CDL). (49 CFR Part 383)
  • School bus drivers must comply with the FMCSA’s drug and alcohol testing requirements. (49 CFR Part 382)

So if there was an imaginary state line, we’d require higher safety standards, but if a school bus driver has to drive identical roads and highways within a state, he or she does not have to meet these higher safety regulations.

The reality is that school bus drivers actually face a harder task than most truck or bus drivers.

When you think about what school bus drivers face every school day, this becomes clear. School buses are large, heavy, dangerous and inherently difficult to drive. Turning is tough. Blind spots are numerous. Most important of all, trucks and buses don’t face the challenge of small children who could be, and often are, running near these big yellow buses with lots of blind spots.

In June, I was featured on CBS News for its “[I]nvestigation finds stunning lack of oversight of school bus drivers” story, where I discussed how the lower level of training, thin motor safety rules and lack of universal bus driver regulations make for a national safety crisis. There I said:

“[Because there] are no universal standards … there is nothing that automatically will disqualify a school bus driver who, let’s say, has an extensive criminal background or DUIs or has caused too many crashes …”

When the bus company knows a school bus driver is a high risk to children

Feeling ill right now?

Maybe you have a dangerous medical condition?

That probably doesn’t matter if you were a school bus driver.

In November 2016, school bus driver Glenn Chappell veered into oncoming traffic and ripped through the side of a Maryland Transit Administration bus in Baltimore. Chappell and the other bus driver were killed along with four others, while 10 others were injured.

The National Transportation Safety Board said Chappell, 67, had been involved in 12 prior auto accidents and had a history of seizures. The Baltimore Sun reported that Chappell experienced “seizure-like” episodes in a few of those prior crashes. He also suffered a medical emergency that witnesses described as a seizure a week prior to the fatal bus crash; that prompted paramedics to call his employer, AAAfordable Transportation, which was under contract with Baltimore’s public school system to transport students with special needs.

That means AAAfordable knew about Chappell’s recent medical history. Yet they still let him drive a school bus with young children.

Last year I wrote about another school bus company, Durham School Services, which had knowledge that one of its own drivers was in a less-than-professional frame of mind to drive children.

This school bus driver allegedly bullied, endangered and verbally abused his passengers repeatedly. He was still driving children despite the school district’s having received “many e-mails of complaint and concern” about him. The district had a legal duty to act when they learned about this driver’s behavior. It chose not to.

Then, when the school bus driver caused a tragic school bus crash in Chattanooga, Tennessee — one that killed 6 elementary school students — it was too late to do anything.

Can nearly anyone can get behind the wheel of a big yellow school bus?

As I explained to CBS News:

“Parents assume when they put their children on a school bus that that driver is safe. These parents really need to be asking who’s driving their children …”

Thinking back to one school bus accident injury case I litigated, I argued that based on how the defendant company hired the at-fault school bus driver, it wasn’t an exaggeration to say nearly anyone can get behind the wheel of a big yellow school bus, or stand in as a substitute bus driver.

That’s just what happened in Glenn Chappell’s case. He was a contract worker, much like many other school bus drivers who are retirees or homemakers and who drive school buses to make a little extra money. They don’t get the benefits of truck drivers, and as I discussed above, they don’t have to meet the higher safety standards of drivers who handle big commercial trucking.

The majority of these contract workers are good people who do their best. But there’s a lot riding on their shoulders: a bus full of schoolchildren, one of which could be yours.

And if someone is deemed too unsafe to drive a commercial truck, why do we allow them to drive a school bus full of children instead?

This entry was tagged Tags: Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, school bus accidents, school bus driver safety, school bus driver training
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