School districts must hire qualified school bus drivers — and then act and react when safety complaints arise
I recently wrote about the fatal Baltimore accident involving a school bus and a public MTA bus that killed six people and injured 10 more, stressing the dire need for more school bus driver training. This is because, believe it or not, school bus drivers – those entrusted with transporting our own children – actually have less training standards and more medical exemptions under federal law than truck drivers and commercial bus drivers. Thankfully, no students were hurt in the Baltimore bus accident.
But less than one month later, we have another terrible bus accident. This latest has now killed six elementary school students, ranging from ages 6 to 10 in Chattanooga, TN. In this case, the school district appears to be negligent after many reports were made about the bus driver, who allegedly bullied his tiny passengers by driving recklessly. The news reports say he was speeding, swerving, braking to prompt students to hit their heads or fall, and telling students he didn’t care about them.
Here are some details about the TN school bus accident, according to a recent story in The New York Times: Johnthony K. Walker, driving 37 children home from Woodmore Elementary School, strayed from his route and crashed on Nov. 25. The crash, for which Mr. Walker has been charged with vehicular homicide (he was also allegedly speeding), is being investigated by the National Transportation Safety Board and the Chattanooga police.
Records released by the Hamilton County Department of Education showed that Mr. Walker’s behavior was a frequent worry this year. For instance, in September, a parent named Jasmine Mateen wrote to a teacher that Mr. Walker was cursing students and slamming on his brakes, “making them hit they heads and fall out” of their seats.
“He did intentional stuff to them kids on the bus all the time,” Ms. Mateen said in an interview last week, a day after one of her 6-year-old daughters was killed in the bus accident. Two of Ms. Mateen’s other children were injured, according to The Times.
Mr. Walker, 24, is not a school district employee; he worked for Durham School Services, a contractor based in Illinois that says it carries more than one million schoolchildren daily. In a statement, the school district acknowledged that its records contained “many emails of complaint and concern.”
So the distract was very aware of Mr. Walker’s dangerous behavior, yet it did nothing to get this dangerous school bus driver out of the driver’s seat. Legally, the district has a duty to monitor and supervise the people they hire. An attorney for the families of the victims can now plead claims for negligent entrustment, supervision, training and negligent monitoring in a bus accident lawsuit. Many states will also allow claims for punitive damages and exemplary damages, based upon these facts, if they’re proven to be true.
The district had a legal duty to act when they learned about this driver’s behavior. It chose not to.
And now it’s too late.
What is the lesson here? School districts, whether hiring bus drivers directly, or working with a third party as many do, are responsible for putting safe and qualified bus drivers on the road. The law actually allows districts to hire the drivers that are too unsafe or unfit to drive trucks or commercial buses (see my info below on school bus driver training).
So we let them drive our children in school buses instead? That’s insane. Federal requirements must be raised to at least the same standards as they are for other commercial drivers.
Attorneys litigating these school bus accident cases should also focus on the training and hiring qualifications of these drivers, and what steps were taken before entrusting a driver to driver a school bus.
School bus driver training – why it’s lacking
A bus driver must hold a Commercial Drivers License (CDL) with a school bus endorsement. Often, this means less than 10 hours of training. School bus drivers are also exempt from the following Federal Motor Carrier Safety regulations:
- 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.
Who can drive a school bus?
In a recent school bus accident injury case I litigated (and that made local news), I told a jury that based on how this company hired the at-fault bus 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.
You can clearly see it happen again in this tragic and fatal Tennessee bus accident. The bus driver was a part time driver hired by Durham School Services.
Like Mr. Walker in Tennessee, typically, bus drivers are part time and do not have benefits. Many school bus drivers are people with spare time on their hands, or retirees or homemakers adding to their household income. But they’re being entrusted with driving large, heavy school buses that are difficult to turn and have many blind spots/no zone areas around the bus.
Small, vulnerable children often are hidden in these spots. And these children are the victims of this inadequate training.
Our attorneys can write until we’re blue in the face about the importance of safety belts on school buses, and most important of all, why we need better training for school bus drivers. But when contract companies and school districts that put unsafe bus drivers on the road fail to adequately train drivers, test them for drugs and alcohol, look into their driving records and their past, and then fail to monitor and supervise them, these deadly crashes become foreseeable. Adding insult to injury, if reports are true, the district also turned a deaf ear to multiple serious safety complaints.
We send our sincere condolences to the families of the children who were tragically taken in this terrible and preventable deadly bus accident.