A recent tragic school bus-MTA accident in Baltimore, Maryland, took the lives of the bus drivers and four others, and injured 10 more. On the morning of Nov. 1, 2016, the school bus, driven by Glenn Chappell, veered into oncoming traffic and ripped through the side of a Maryland Transit Administration bus.
While investigators don’t know yet what caused Mr. Chappell to lose control, a recent article by CBS found a police report of a crash he was previously involved in, where he lost consciousness and control of his car. Mr. Chappell’s grandson, Neco Williams, has stated in published reports that his grandfather had a history of seizures, stating, “I definitely feel like he had a medical emergency, um, that, unfortunately, just he lost control, and he wasn’t able to function properly.”
Each time there’s a serious bus accident like this one, the need for better training and certification of bus drivers is highlighted. And as one of the few lawyers in Michigan who litigates serious bus accident cases, I know that so many bus crashes are caused by negligent hiring of drivers and their inadequate safety training. As part of any bus accident investigation, it’s also important to analyze how bus and transit companies are maintaining their fleets and to check to see if they’re complying with Federal Motor Carrier Safety Rules (FMSCRs) and state laws.
Sadly, in most bus accident cases, the root cause of a crash is actually a series of decisions to violate or ignore mandatory safety rules. The final couple seconds, whether that be a bus rear-ending traffic in front of it or losing control and veering into oncoming traffic, as here, is usually not only foreseeable but also predictable.
For example, in the latest Baltimore bus crash, federal investigators have ruled out mechanical failure of the school bus and are “looking into whether Mr. Chappell had a medical emergency that led to the crash.” Further, FMCSA states that Chappell’s license lapsed because he failed to turn in his medical certification, according to CBS.
Baltimore-based AAAfordable was one of seven bus companies under contract with the school system. AAAfordable owner Mark Williams said in published reports that Mr. Chappell was one of a “handful” who are contracted by city schools and had a good driving record. Yet this company allegedly put him on the road without a medical certification. I think most people would agree that Mr. Chappell shouldn’t have been behind the wheel driving a big bus in the first place — especially if he had a seizure disorder.
This awful case is extremely similar to my truck accident lawsuit involving Patrick Nunez, a loving father and husband who was hit and killed by a fully-loaded gravel hauler on the highway in Detroit. The truck driver had epilepsy, and was on powerful anti-seizure medication that causes drowsiness and delayed reaction time. His front steer tire blew – a foreseeable and preventable event – and he lost control of his truck, killing my client.
I was recently interviewed as an attorney expert on CBS Evening News with Scott Pelley as part of an investigative report on truck drivers with serious medical conditions. We discussed this case in depth as a prime example of the trucking safety crisis in America today, where truck and bus companies put dangerous drivers behind the wheel and push them to drive over hours and break safety laws, sacrificing public safety for a bigger bottom line.
For Mr. Nunez and his family, I proved the at-fault truck driver didn’t have a medical qualification file containing his medical records that revealed his epilepsy. In addition, the trucker was related to the trucking company owners, who “overlooked” the fact that he had epilepsy and still allowed him to drive, as people with epilepsy are not allowed to drive buses and large trucks, according to the FMSCRs. In fact, there’s a regulation directly on point. Here’s the FMSCA Regulation saying a trucker can never get an epilepsy waiver:
A person is physically qualified to drive a commercial motor vehicle if that person: Has no established medical history or clinical diagnosis of epilepsy or any other condition which is likely to cause loss of consciousness or any loss of ability to control a motor vehicle. Epilepsy is a chronic functional disease characterized by seizures or episodes that occur without warning, resulting in loss of voluntary control which may lead to loss of consciousness and/or seizures. Therefore, the following drivers cannot be qualified: (1) a driver who has a medical history of epilepsy; (2) a driver who has a current clinical diagnosis of epilepsy; or (3) a driver who is taking anti-seizure medication.
What this case illustrates to me is why ho important it is for lawyers to ask in any case involving bus drivers: If this bus driver had more training and supervision, or a proper medical history and examination, would this crash still have occurred?
Could these lives have been saved?
Little known fact: School bus driver training is scary and inadequate
To make matters worse, most people don’t realize that school bus drivers have very little training compared to other drivers of large commercial motor vehicles and buses.
So little that I’ve written about the terrible discrepancy in training. And nowhere is this discrepancy greater than where it matters most – protecting our most precious cargo of all — our kids.
This, too, is a serious public safety issue.
As I’ve reviewed before , a bus driver must hold a Commercial Drivers License (CDL) with a school bus endorsement. This often means less than 10 hours of training. School bus drivers are also exempt from the following FMCSRs:
- 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.
In one of my school bus injury lawsuits, I told a jury that based on how this company hired this driver, it’s not an exaggeration to say nearly anyone can get behind the wheel of a big yellow bus, or stand in as a substitute or contract bus driver.
Many bus drivers are also part time and do not have benefits. For instance, Mr. Chappell was a contract worker. This also leads to better drivers going elsewhere, such as to the big commercial trucking jobs and exacerbates the problem of poorly trained or medically unfit bus drivers in the U.S.
Many school bus drivers are people looking to pass time and make some extra money, or they are retirees or homemakers looking for extra income.
But we’re entrusting these people with driving these large, heavy and dangerous buses that are inherently difficult to drive. Most buses are tough to turn and they have many “no-zones” (blind spots). Small children may be easily hidden, and kids being kids, are often running near these big yellow buses.
Children are often the victims of this inadequate hiring.
Thankfully in the Baltimore bus crash, no children were injured. My hope is that this terrible tragedy shines a spotlight on bus safety and perhaps a constructive dialogue on how we can take a very dangerous but largely hidden situation and make it more safe.