School Bus Driver in Huntsville Crash Was Unbelted

Published: February 21, 2010

The school bus driver in the fatal 2006 crash in Huntsville, Ala., was not wearing his seat belt, which allowed him to be thrown from the bus before it plunged 30 feet off of a highway ramp, federal investigators said.

That finding was part of the National Transportation Safety Board’s (NTSB) long-awaited report on the accident, in which four students were killed and more than 30 were injured.

The bus was on a two-lane elevated highway transition ramp when a Toyota Celica driven by a high school student attempted to pass the bus in the right lane, according to witnesses.

The car driver later said that as he came alongside the bus, the car began fishtailing and became impossible to control, and he veered to the left, striking the right front tire of the bus. The vehicles remained in contact as they swerved to the left, both striking a 32-inch-high cement bridge rail.

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The bus climbed and overrode the rail. The unbelted bus driver was ejected onto the roadway. The bus continued along the top of the bridge rail for about 117 feet before rolling and falling 30 feet to a dirt and grass area. The bus landed on its front end and then came to rest upright.

NTSB found that the probable cause of the crash was “a vehicle loss of control during a passing maneuver around a curve by the Toyota driver attempting to overtake the school bus prior to an impending exit both drivers intended to take.” The bus overrode the rail because the Toyota restricted its trajectory away from the rail, the agency said.

There were at least five full ejections, including the bus driver, and one partial ejection during the accident, NTSB found.

The report did not address how the outcome might have differed if the bus driver had been wearing his seat belt, but it did look at the role that lap-shoulder belts might have played in protecting the students.

Three of the four killed were front-row passengers; the other was in the second row. “Had the school bus been equipped with lap-shoulder belts, some serious injuries might have been mitigated among occupants seated away from the area of intrusion, such as the fatally injured passenger in the second row and the seriously injured passengers in the rear of the bus, because the belts would have kept these students within their seating compartments during the accident sequence,” NTSB said.

However, the agency said that because it couldn’t be determined whether the crushed roof impinged upon the “survivable space” of the first-row passengers, it’s unclear whether lap-shoulder belts would have saved those students.

The accident rekindled debate on whether school buses should have seat belts. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) later issued a final rule requiring lap-shoulder belts in small school buses but leaving them optional for large school buses.

In the Huntsville report, NTSB was critical of that final rule, saying it “did not provide a uniform level of safety for all school bus occupants.” But NTSB noted that NHTSA is currently testing methods to provide passenger protection for school bus sidewalls, sidewall components and seat frames.

Also in the report, NTSB reiterated its 1999 recommendation to NHTSA to require event data recorders (EDRs) on school buses and motorcoaches. Some school bus industry officials agreed that such a device would have provided valuable information on the Huntsville crash.

“While school buses maintain an excellent safety record, I hope that NHTSA is seriously pursuing this recommendation,” said Charlie Hood, president of the National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services. “Most of the necessary electronics to achieve EDR functionality may already be standard equipment on late model school buses, so it’s possible there would be little extra cost to manufacturers and bus purchasers.”

Mike Martin, executive director of the National Association for Pupil Transportation, said that a recorder capturing data at a high enough sampling rate “would certainly have helped state and federal investigators seeking to make science-based recommendations for improving school bus and school bus passenger safety as a result of this crash.”

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Tagged with: School Bus Safety

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