By allowing someone with a known physical impairment to drive a school bus, an Iowa school district is partly responsible for a 2017 crash and fire that killed both the driver and a female student who was his passenger. That determination is part of the National Transportation Safety Board’s (NTSB) investigation into the Dec. 12 incident in Oakland, Iowa involving a bus operated by the Riverside Community School District.
Stuck in a ditch - then fire breaks out
The crash occurred when the driver turned from a rural gravel road onto a residential driveway to pick up the first student on his route. After the student boarded the bus, the driver reversed out of the driveway and backed across the road – as was his normal practice at that location. However this time, he continued until the bus’s rear wheels ran off the road and got stuck in a three-foot ditch next to the road. With the driver attempting to navigate the vehicle out of the ditch, a fire began in the engine compartment and spread throughout the school bus. The driver and the only passenger – a 16-year-old student – did not get out of the burning bus in time and perished.
In the report released Tuesday, the NTSB noted the origin of the fire was the exterior of the engine’s turbocharger. Investigators found that when the bus came to rest in the ditch, the exhaust was blocked. As the driver attempted to drive the bus out of the ditch, repeatedly accelerating the engine, it caused turbocharger overload with significant heat output which resulted in the fire.
School buses still safe
“As tragic as this accident is, it’s important for parents and students to understand that crash data shows students are safer riding in a school bus than being driven to school in the family car, and, students are far safer on the school bus than in a car driven by a teenager,” said NTSB Chairman Robert Sumwalt.
The agency found that the mechanical condition of the school bus, roadway design or conditions; and weather conditions were not factors in the crash. The driver was not impaired or fatigued.
“The driver failed to control the school bus and prevent the run-off-road crash for reasons that cannot be determined from the available information,” according to the report.
Severe chronic pain
The NTSB said the driver had “limited mobility” due to progressive chronic back disease, which caused severe chronic pain and likely impaired his ability to evacuate the school bus himself or to assist the passenger in getting out of the bus.
“Drivers should not only be able to operate the vehicle, but also be able to assist in the evacuation of passengers in an emergency, said Sumwalt. “Robust oversight on the part of the school district should ensure the safety of student transportation.”
Contributing to the severity of the fire was a gap in the firewall that facilitated the spread of heat, toxic gases and fire into the passenger compartment. The NTSB found small penetrations through the firewall were not blocked with fire-resistant material and did not provide any fire protection or containment.
As result of the investigation the NTSB issued a total of 10 safety recommendations with one safety recommendations issued to the Department of Transportation, two issued to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, three issued to the State of Iowa and two to Blue Bird Corporation, Collins Industries, Inc., IC Bus,Starcraft Bus, Thomas Built Buses, Inc., Trans Tech, and Van-Con, Inc. Forty-four states including the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico; the National Association of Stated Directors of Pupil Transportation Services, National Association for Pupil Transportation, and National School Transportation Association; and the Riverside Community School District each received one safety recommendation.
The recommendations address safety issues including school bus driver fitness for duty, school bus fire safety, and school bus emergency training. In addition, the NTSB reiterated one recommendation to NHTSA.
An abstract of the final report, which includes the findings, probable cause, and all safety recommendations, is available at https://go.usa.gov/xy3DG.
Links to the accident docket and related news releases for this investigation are available athttps://go.usa.gov/xmJqV.