Seeing is believing – School transport news

For decades, law enforcement agencies and school transportation professionals have painstakingly reconstructed school bus accidents to determine their exact causes. Some crashes are relatively minor. Others, though rarer, result in significant property loss or worse.

Such exercises continue to serve a valuable purpose in determining speed, braking (or lack thereof), distraction, and other characteristics of an accident. But no reconstruction is as good as looking at what happened.

This month’s cover captures the moment just before a cement pump truck struck a school bus in Bastrop County, Texas, just east of Austin. The incident was the second catastrophic school bus accident within 11 days in March. The National Transportation Safety Board is already investigating the first fatal school bus crash, a head-on collision in Illinois on March 11 that resulted in the deaths of three preschoolers, their bus driver and the truck driver. For this reason, the agency told me it would not investigate the Hays Consolidated Independent School Bus crash in Texas, which occurred on March 22.

Both accidents were head-on collisions and both resulted from a driver crossing the center line. In the Illinois accident, news reports indicated that the driver of the school bus drove into oncoming traffic. There is no known video of that crash. The NTSB’s final investigation, expected sometime next year, will provide details.

But we know the brutal, criminal reality in Texas. Video released by Hays CISD in the days after the crash, and after the cement pump truck driver admitted to using cocaine hours earlier, shows exactly what happened. The dashcam video captures the cement pump truck’s approach from the opposite lane, before suddenly veering left and into the path of the school bus.

That collision and resulting rollover killed a pre-K student, as did another motorist who drove behind the bus. Without the actions of the Hays CISD bus driver, the crash could have been worse. Her quick reaction to steer right probably saved more lives, especially her own. The cement pump driver is said to have fallen asleep at the wheel and does not appear to brake. (The fact that the school bus was not equipped with integrated child seats is another matter.)

The NTSB has studied similar fatal school bus accidents in the past and aims to learn new lessons from different crash forces, such as the one in Illinois, where both vehicles
caught fire shortly after impact. The fact that all victims died in the resulting fire dictated that the NTSB focus its resources there, as the previous fatal school bus fire it investigated – 2017 in Iowa – had more to do with a school bus driver being physically unfit for duty.

But the local investigation in Texas continues. Thanks to the onboard video camera footage, Hays CISD and the entire student transportation industry can learn valuable, yet heartbreaking lessons.

I, like most readers, did not watch the entire video from all angles and channels, but I did watch about a few minutes of raw footage, both from the dashcam and from an external camera located on the right side of the bus mounted. It contained the audio, which STN removed before posting it online. It’s one thing to watch the cement pump truck drive into the path of the school bus. It’s quite another to hear children laughing and singing one second and screaming and crying the next.

More and more school buses are equipped with video cameras, but there are high-profile examples where video is missing. Exhibits 1 and 1a are the country’s two largest school districts, New York City and Los Angeles, assuming both take action on the technology. How many of the school districts that actively use video have front-facing dashcams?

There is no definitive research. But representatives from several school bus video vendors told me that new system orders increasingly include dash cams. One official told me that dashcams are essentially standard on all projects the company has worked on over the past six years.

The school districts and bus companies that use dashcams find the video invaluable for driver training and coaching. They complement camera systems that can capture all areas on the bus to monitor student behavior and document the danger zone around the buses when loading and unloading students.

While some incidents are unavoidable, proactive lessons can be learned from the footage with life-saving benefits.

Editor’s Note: As reprinted in the May 2024 issue of School Transportation News.

Related: Video footage of a school bus crash in Georgia, released a year later
Related: Texas School District Adopts Accelerated Seat Belt Plan After Fatal Bus Crash
Related: NTSB releases preliminary report on Illinois school bus crash
Related: Truck driver admitted cocaine use before fatal school bus crash in Texas