By: Stephen McAllister
There have been 21 accidents involving a school bus in Hamilton County since the school year started less than two months ago.
The district struck an $11 million three-year contract with First Student Inc., a new bus vendor, in March of this year. First Student began operating student transportation in July, delivering 185 brand-new buses with leading safety features – including a GPS tracker, air conditioning, and six digital cameras in each bus. Anita Brown, senior location manager for First Student, said, “Cameras, lights, wig-wag lights – so we’re very proud of the air-conditioned buses that we brought in.” The district still also employs around 70 independent contract drivers.
Lt. Daniel Jones of the Chattanooga Police Department argues that even safety features cannot protect children from distracted drivers who never even notice the school bus.
“The issue is that we have a lot of people that are not paying attention to the road,” Jones said, “Whether that’s through a cell phone, whether it’s them eating, whether it’s them just watching different traffic crashes that have already happened or seeing something that’s not necessarily in the roadway.”
The most recent accident occurred last Wednesday morning, Sept. 25, at the intersection of Dayton Pike and Clift Mill Road. Bus 16 was rear-ended by another vehicle, and Hamilton County Schools spokesman Tim Hensley said that no students were injured. This minor instance is similar to the majority of accidents that have happened this school year, where school bus drivers were not at fault.
The fatal 2016 Woodmore Elementary School bus crash played a significant role in the district’s decision to switch from transportation provider Durham School Services. Johnthony Walker, a driver for Durham at the time, was convicted in the deaths of six children.
On Friday, Aug. 23, First Student bus, number 331, crashed head-on with a red Jeep Liberty on Villagewood Drive in Harrison. The teenage driver of the Jeep was at fault, and 13 students were taken to the hospital by ambulance and private vehicles. Hamilton County Emergency Management Agency Lt. Nick Wilson said that all of the injuries were minor.
UTC sophomore Tessa Baker has two younger siblings who ride a Hamilton County school bus regularly, and she has begun to worry for their safety.
“I’m not sure what’s going on this year, but hearing about all these bus crashes has scared me,” Baker said, “I really don’t even want my little brother and sister to ride the bus anymore… and I hate to feel that way.”
Strikingly, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration determines that students are 70 times more likely to arrive to school safely when riding a school bus instead of a car.