Having served as an expert witness on nearly 60 crossing accidents, roughly half of them involving school buses, I found certain themes common to many of them. However, the range and diversity of mistakes made were nothing short of astonishing, and they illustrate a disturbingly widespread pattern of ignorance and misinformation among members of our transportation community who should, frankly, know better. I am convinced that much of this reflects our community’s refusal to examine this touchy subject responsibly – particularly the National Congress on School Transportation, which has never once addressed any of the system design or operating issues involved in crossing, apart from dealing with crossing equipment, during its 70-year history. Otherwise, in fairness to the NCST and the community at large, few if any individuals have had the chance to view these problems from the same perspective that I have – being asked to examine each incident in excruciating detail, and exploring its intertwined cousins, safety and liability, in a courtroom, and in the process leading up to it (issues often “settled” before they end up there, which as a bi-product, impedes the sharing of this information as a condition of the settlement’s “confidentiality”). It is this perspective that I intend to share with STN’s readers in this article and in the next six installments to follow.
Recently, I came upon an eye-opening study titled School Bus Stop Laws in the United States, Canada and Other Countries that focused on the extraordinary differences in crossing-related policies, procedures and practices among various states and provinces. This document, published in 2005-2006, was authored by J. Jim, a member of the National Motorists Association, a 1982-founded organization actually formed to protect the rights of motorists. Much of the information presented in the series of installments that follow this Introduction is taken directly from that study, which was organized in a state-by-state format. In contrast, the six installments which follow are structured by type of procedure, which better illustrates the degree of variation from state to state. Because the examples in my seven STN pieces are necessarily limited, I highly recommend that every member of our community concerned with the central purpose of our existence also read the original study. And because that study is now five years old, and my own experiences date back as far as 20 years, a few things have likely changed. So I hope I will be forgiven for presenting any examples that are obsolete and/or incorrect, and welcome any information that will update and correct it (contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org with your comments).
Variation, Catastrophes and Political Knee-jerking
While the evolution of school buses stemmed from a single origin – the use of horse-driven buckboards to transport rural students often long distances to schools in the early 20th Century – events that occurred from time to time in various states began to shape the variations in both vehicles and operations. One intriguing example is the difference in window-opening sizes from state-to-state. Connecticut’s regulations, which require the nation’s smallest openings (seven inches), stemmed from an incident where a student stuck his head out the window in a tightly-packed schoolyard, and it was summarily chopped off by a fellow school bus passing too closely to the victim’s bus’ body. The State of Washington, joined by many others following the famous Carrollton and Alton accidents of the 1980s, requires 12-inch window openings, largely for evacuation purposes. The short-lived TAM 252 school bus was designed with 14-inch window openings: Two members of that project’s “User Design Committee” had been defensive tackles for Washington State University, and insisted that a large high school student be able to exit the passenger windows while wearing shoulder pads. Because no Washington schoolchild has been beheaded (to my knowledge), and no Connecticut school bus has been enveloped by flames or submerged into a deep canal, these distinctions have been relatively harmless, as are many state-specific variations. But many of the other variations I have seen, compounded by a collection of liability ruses (e.g., Baltimore) or mindless educational policy decisions (e.g., Pinellas County, Florida), have led directly to an epidemic of needless slaughter. It is variations such as these that concern me, and which should concern us all.
A handful of these themes – such as differences in crossing device requirements from state-to-state, and similar differences in retrofit requirements – have already been explored in previous installments of “The Crossing Guy.” Some of these themes may be revisited briefly in the coming installments. For the most part, however, the themes treated in future installments involve phenomena examined before in only a single state, and often by glimpsing at only a single or handful of incidents. But many of them will be new to STN readers – and many readers may find some of them shocking.
In closing, my goal is not to lobby for complete uniformity in vehicle design, system design, policies, procedures and operations – although there are strong arguments for uniformity in crossing-related policies and procedures in all but unique operating environments. Instead, this examination should provide insight into the types of variations that are responsible for a considerable amount of the carnage we continue to experience, despite some deliberate efforts to conceal it. The hope is that, recognizing these almost endless aberrations, fellow-state peer pressure will begin to shrink the degree of variation, and provide guidance to our community about the most foolhardy and dangerous practices, in the hope that they may someday be modified or eliminated. While it is comforting to learn (as STN readers will) that most states and school districts are executing basic crossing fundamentals correctly and sensibly, many of the deviations from the norm are outright frightening, not to mention an international embarrassment viewed by nations without separate school bus services but which have far fewer crossing-related fatalities and serious injuries. Otherwise, in a nation currently obsessed with budget-cutting and concentrating wealth into an almost miniscule percentage of the overall population, we cannot afford to miss opportunities to reinforce the value of our contributions to a nation that shares these values yet is becoming increasingly less willing to pay to uphold them.
1. As an insight into the extraordinary efficiencies of the pre-digital world from which there is no longer any escape, it is worth noting that these first “school buses” were buckboards that did not even have drivers. After the first day’s trip guided by the farmer whose child ostensibly lived the furthest from the school, the horse memorized the route, and followed it precisely for the remainder of the school year – waiting outside (or in a barn or shed during cold weather) until the school day finished, and then reversed the route for the return trip home. Thus, apart from the vehicle and fuel (mostly oats), there was no maintenance, no scheduling, no management, minimal policies and procedures (after all, what more could you teach such a driver?) and, naturally, few if any accidents. Along with this, of course, was the near-absence of a budget, since the minimal costs were easily shared among the passengers’ families. In fact, the shape of even today’s school bus seats were a derivative of the bench seating on buckboards.