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Mark Bello
Mark Bello
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Is the NHTSA Reopening School Bus Seat Belt Issue?

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A Tennessee bus driver facing three lawsuits resulting from a fatal December 2014 bus accident has died. The accident occurred when he made a sharp turn, crossed a concrete median and crashed into another bus, causing it to flip over. Six months after the accident, police determined that the school bus driver was texting at the time of the accident. In fact, the investigation showed that he sent and received multiple text messages leading up to the time the two buses collided. Two students and a teacher’s aide died at the scene; they were on the overturned bus. Both bus drivers and several other students were injured.

The negligent bus driver died on June 1. While his death appears to be from natural causes, an autopsy has been ordered. Although his death means there will be no criminal case, an attorney for two families of deceased victims says he will move forward with wrongful death lawsuits. The driver of the other bus also filed a lawsuit claiming he suffered severe and permanent personal injuries, including both physical and mental injuries. The lawsuits name the negligent bus driver and the owner of the bus as defendants.

What can a business do to protect itself and avoid responsibility? Implement a cell phone policy as part of its employee handbook. The policy should prohibit employees from using a cell phone while driving, regardless of whether there are less stringent state restrictions. Additionally, businesses should hold periodic training on mobile phone safety. Policies should be in writing; employees should be required to provide written acknowledgement that training has been received. Vigorously enforcing the policy and monitoring employee compliance is crucial to protecting against potential company liability. If it can be determined that a cell phone distraction contributed to a death or injury, a company without a cell phone policy should be held liable. An employer can be held directly responsible because of its own negligent conduct in failing to properly train, encouraging mobile phone use while driving, or in failing to have a policy of discouragement of mobile device use while driving.

In addition to the issue of distracted driving, the investigation revealed some alarming issues regarding the lack of oversight and supervision of the private school bus contractors that are transporting school students on a daily basis. The investigation also revealed that the driver of the overturned bus had a valid commercial driver’s license, but only a school bus endorsement permit. The permit means he was only allowed to drive a bus with another licensed school bus driver on board. Because of the discrepancy, Knox County Schools Superintendent Jim McIntyre ordered a complete review of all 300 to 500 of the county’s bus drivers to ensure that they do in fact have the appropriate licensure.

On a much larger scale is the concern of seat belts on school buses. A statewide outcry over the bus accident prompted state Rep. Joe Armstrong (D) to draft legislation that would require seat belts on all Tennessee school buses. The proposal includes installing seat belts on all new school buses, but phasing them in on buses already on the roads to help defray costs. Unfortunately, house transportation subcommittee said there were enough questions that the bill needed further study before it progressed further.

While fatality rates are higher in automobiles, there are still ways to make school buses safer. Many communities think that seat belts are one way of doing so. Currently, only six states, California, Florida, Louisiana, New Jersey, New York and Texas require seat belts on school buses. Why aren’t there more? While on average, six school-age children in the U.S. die in school bus crashes every year, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) says children don’t need to buckle up on school buses because the closely-spaced seats have energy-absorbing backs provide occupants protection during an accident. The IMMI, an organization that designs, tests and manufactures advanced safety systems, says this belief is outdated and untrue. In fact, the Center for Advanced Product Evaluation (CAPE), a division of IMMI, performed both a barrier crash demonstration and a rollover demonstration for Good Morning America Investigates in January. Using child-size dummies, some were restrained in three-point seat belts and the others were unrestrained. The video is dramatic and clearly shows the unrestrained “children” flying out of their seat compartments and smashing their heads on the roof before settling into a heap on top of one another. The restrained dummies remained in their seats the entire time. Regardless of whether the passengers had seat belts, all buses provide seat belts for drivers and most bus companies make their drivers wear seat belts to avoid impact with the dashboard or windshield in the event of a collision.

Was this a wake-up call for the NHTSA? Mark Rosekind, the new head of NHTSA, said that although there has been no federal mandate requiring seat belts on school buses, he has convened a group within the agency to study the issue and promises a full review.

Stay tuned.

Mark Bello is the CEO and General Counsel of Lawsuit Financial Corporation, a pro-justice lawsuit funding company.