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How to prevent the next school bus crash in Michigan

June 4, 2018 by Steven M. Gursten

Ways to minimize the risk of a school bus crash caused by negligent motorists include imposing criminal penalties when appropriate

Imposing criminal penalties, allowing punitive damages may be the ways to prevent the next school bus crash

Of all the types of crashes I litigate, the school bus crash case is one of the hardest because of the children involved.

Two recent school bus crashes, one of which proved to be tragically fatal, in Washtenaw and St. Clair Counties also had me thinking about how we can do more to better protect school children.

On I-94, near U.S. 23 in Ann Arbor on May 29, 2018, a SUV slammed into a disabled school bus on the side of the highway, resulting in the death of a tow truck driver, according to MLive.

The next day in China Township in St. Clair County, a school bus collision occurred when a pickup truck ran a stop sign at Wadhams Road and St. Clair Highway, according to The Times Herald.

I’ve litigated a number of cases involving school bus crashes with unqualified or medically unfit school bus drivers, and I’ve been interviewed as an attorney expert on school bus cases on national news, but these two recent cases did not involve driver error by the school bus driver. They involved driver error by the SUV and pickup truck drivers who chose not to care that a school bus with children was nearby when they made dangerous driving decisions. Instead of driving with extra care, they chose to do the opposite.

If people choose to be so distracted, inattentive and negligent behind the wheel that they can’t slow down or drive with a little extra care to avoid hitting a bright yellow, 40-foot vehicle containing children, then something more needs to be done to get drivers’ attention.

It is time we force them to drive more safely to prevent school bus accidents if they won’t do it on their own.

Taking a page from the Mothers Against Drunk Driving playbook and the campaign that was started in the 1970s to stop people from driving drunk behind the wheel, here’s what I came up with:

  • Imposing criminal penalties including jail time, heavy fines and suspension and/or revocation of a driver’s license for negligently causing a school bus crash.
  • Having a legal presumption that a driver is negligent if he or she causes a school bus crash (borrowing from the law which says that a driver who rear-ends another car “shall be deemed prima facie guilty of negligence” (MCL 257.402(a)))
  • Allowing victims of a school bus crash to seek exemplary and punitive damages from the at-fault driver based upon the need to discourage and punish these drivers to make us all safer. If these drivers are getting into a school bus crash with highly visible vehicles, carrying vulnerable and defenseless young children on their way to school, then we need to treat these as special cases apart from your typical motor vehicle accident. The need to protect these children is heightened because of how vulnerable they are. Child-occupants are not protected by seat belts because almost all school buses do not have seat belts.

What do we know about school bus crash statistics?

NHTSA’s January 2018 “Traffic Safety Facts” about school bus crashes between 2007 and 2016 tells us the following:

  • From 2007 to 2016, there 1,147 fatal school-bus-related crashes which caused the deaths of 1,282 people.
  • “Among the 118 occupants killed in school transportation vehicles [as a result of “school-transportation-related crashes”], 50 were drivers and 68 were passengers.”
  • From 2007 to 2016, of the “281 school-age children who died in school-transportation-related crashes,” “58 were occupants of school transportation vehicles”: 3 were under 5 years of age; 12 were between the ages of 5 and 7; 23 were between 8 and 13; and 20 were between 14 and 18 years of age.

(Source: “School-Transportation-Related Crashes,” Traffic Safety Facts, 2007-2016 Data, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, January 2018)

Similarly, NHTSA’s data on school bus crash-related fatalities through its “Fatality Analysis Reporting System” tell us:

  • Nationwide, school bus fatal crashes were considerably lower in 2016 at 87 than in 2012 at 102. The fatal school crash rates were 99, 91 and 114 for 2015, 2014 and 2013, respectively.
  • Michigan has had its share of school bus crashes, but we’ve been relatively very fortunate to have no fatal school bus crashes in 2016, 2015 and 2013.
  • There was one fatal school bus crash in 2014 and, tragically, there were 5 in 2012.

(Source: NHTSA (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration) – FARS (Fatality Analysis Reporting System) Encyclopedia, FARS Data Tables, Vehicles)

What are your legal rights if your child has been injured a school bus crash in Michigan?

The child will have all medical care and treatment related to the school bus crash paid through Michigan auto No-Fault. In addition, if the child suffered personal injury because of a negligent driver or because of the school bus driver causing a crash, there can be a lawsuit brought by you on the child’s behalf to obtain pain and suffering compensation. To learn about the claims that may be available to you, and all of the No-Fault benefits available, please check out Michigan Auto Law’s “Bus Accident Resource Center.”

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