Most of my readers have probably heard about the fatal crash in Texas that killed 13 church members while they were on their way home from a retreat. For those that have not, the church bus was struck head-on by a pick-up truck on a southwest Texas highway. Twelve people on the bus died at the scene; another died at a hospital. One bus passenger remains hospitalized in serious, but stable condition; the driver of the pickup also remains hospitalized. The bus occupants ranged in age from 61 to 87.
A witness said that he and his girlfriend were on their way home when they saw the truck traveling erratically across the road. He called the sheriff’s offices of two counties to report the truck driver and told them “they needed to get him off the road before he hit somebody.” As the bus rounded a curve, the pick-up truck hit it head on. “The guy drifted over across the yellow line,” said the witness. “The driver of the bus moved over to try to avoid him, but there was nowhere to go with the guardrail there and the truck hit him head-on.”
Parts of both vehicles lie strewn about the site and the bus was backed up onto a guardrail. After the crash, the witness said the driver of the pick-up truck acknowledged he had been texting while driving. “He said, ‘I’m sorry, I’m sorry. I was texting,’ the witness recalled.
So far, officials have ruled out equipment failure on either vehicle as having any possible role in causing the crash. A spokesperson for the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) said a preliminary report could be released within a month, the full report – including a “safety-focused investigation and recommendations – could take up to a year to complete.
The church bus was identified as a 2004 Ford E-350 series van that had been converted to a minibus. Safety concerns have long surrounded 15-passenger vans, frequently used by church and other groups, daycares and schools. When five or more passengers are riding in these vans, the likelihood of rollover increases dramatically. The rear of these vans extend 4 to 5 1/2 feet beyond the rear wheels; any loading of five or more people or luggage/equipment causes instability during emergency maneuvers such as sudden turns to avoid a pedestrian or vehicle. This can also cause the vans to fishtail, and because they are top heavy and overloaded in the rear, they are prone to roll over and result in devastating crashes.
Additionally, a traffic accident reconstruction specialist suggested that any seatbelts fitted in the minibus might not have been suitable for protecting older, more vulnerable passengers, even if it was traveling at a moderate speed.
Three-point seat belts are always preferred over lap belts because they hold the upper torso in place and help prevent head injuries, according to automotive safety advocate Joan Claybrook. She said that one of the problems with lap belts only is that in a frontal impact crash, passengers will remain in their seats, but their upper bodies will go forward and their heads can strike the back of the seat in front. Henry Jasny, senior vice president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, added that if the passenger is wearing only a lap belt, and is seated along the sides of the buses, instead of facing forward, there is a greater risk of hitting one’s head on the side of the vehicle or the window. A frontal crash of this type would be like “hitting a brick wall,” he said.
The NTSB is also analyzing the cell phone records from the driver of the pick-up truck.
Texas has no statewide ban on texting while driving. Why? Despite the Texas State Legislature approving a bill, in 2011 that would have made texting while driving illegal throughout the state, then-Governor Rick Perry vetoed the proposed legislation, arguing that the ban would be government micromanaging adults. Perry said the key to dissuading drivers from texting while driving is “information and education.” While Perry is not wrong about education, it is absurd to think that drivers can decide whether they can drive safely while texting.
While people break texting-while-driving laws all the time, there is a chance that the victims of this fatal crash would be alive today if the former governor had not vetoed the law in 2011. Earlier this month, a 113-32 House vote marked the fourth time that state Rep. Tom Craddick, R-Midland, has tried to pass the measure that he said was long overdue to stop distracted driving that has been blamed in numerous fatal vehicle crashes.
No matter what the outcome of the investigation, safety clearly could have saved lives. Will this tragic crash be what draws enough support for a statewide texting-while-driving ban or will Texas continue to look the other way to the dangers of distracted driving? Lawsuit Financial will be watching.
Lawsuit Financial strongly supports restrictions on driver distractions of any kind, actively promote driver safety, and publicly address the many driver distractions that exist in our daily lives. We also continue to lend support to organizations, such as the Casey Feldman Foundation (CFF), that seeks to educate drivers about the dangers of distracted driving.
Attorney, certified civil mediator, and award-winning author of the Zachary Blake Betrayal Series. Mark Bello is also a member of the State Bar of Michigan, a sustaining member of the Michigan Association for Justice, and a member of the American Association for Justice.