Landmark News Service
Every day, hundreds of thousands of school buses make their way down roads all across the United States at least twice a day – carrying children of all ages to and from school.
Buses also carry children and adults on day trips, overnight trips and to out-of-town sports and academic events.
In the past 20 years, there have been numerous improvements to these vehicles that carry such precious cargo, and most of those changes were made because of a tragic crash that happened near Carrollton on Interstate 71 on May 14, 1988.
Most people traveling that road have seen the marker on the highway. It serves as a reminder of the school-bus-turned-church-bus that was carrying 67 passengers back to Radcliff, Ky., after a day at Kings Island amusement park north of Cincinnati.
The passengers mostly were teen-agers, and all were members of the Radcliff First Assembly of God.
At just before 11 p.m., their trip ended when a drunken driver in a pickup truck, traveling the wrong way on the interstate, struck the bus. As a result of the impact, a fuel tank ruptured and the bus caught fire, killing 24 children and three adults.
Highway Accident Report
Almost a year later, the National Transportation Safety Board released a Highway Accident Report on the crash that addressed a number of issues dealing with bus construction and safety, including the Federal standards regarding the manufacture of school buses, the flammability and toxicity of materials used for seating in the buses, emergency exits on school buses and fuel-system integrity.
In the document, the NTSB made safety recommendations on these issues, which were distributed to the governors of all 50 states, the state of Kentucky, various private church associations and special-activity groups.
The recommendations included proposed legislation to make sure that all buses built prior to April 1977 – like the Radcliff bus – be phased out and taken off the road.
The primary flaw
Today, buses like the one in the so-called Carrollton Bus Crash should be off the roads, according to Kevin Quinlan, chief of safety advocacy for the NTSB.
Much of that can be attributed to the success of legal action taken against The Ford Motor Co., which manufactured the B-700 chassis in 1977. The chassis was equipped with a Superior body that had 11 rows of seats divided by a 12-inch center aisle.
The major flaw of the bus design was an unprotected fuel tank near the front door that held gasoline. The case determined that it was not the impact of the crash that caused the deaths, but the fire that ensued when one of the gas tanks was punctured.
“It was the worst case I’ve ever been involved in,” said Paul Hedlund, an attorney with the law firm of Baum Hedlund Aristei & Goldman, which handled the lawsuit against Ford filed by Janey and Larry Fair. Their daughter, Shannon, was among the victims of the 1988 crash.
It was a highly emotional case, Hedlund added, explaining that the Fairs wanted to force Ford to change the way it manufactured school buses. “Some good came out of it.”
In the bus carrying the 67 passengers that night, Hedlund explained that the fuel tank was located in the front-right corner of the chassis. At the time, it was thought that this was the safest location for a fuel tank: It was away from oncoming traffic, and engineers assumed that any head-on collisions would occur on the left side of the bus.
What wasn’t anticipated was that a drunken driver, driving on the wrong side of the interstate, would crash into the bus head on and hit on the right side of the bus. The impact drove a spring from the bus’s suspension into the tank, causing the vehicle to ignite, Hedlund said.
Hedlund said while working on the case, the firm bought a similar bus and recreated the sequence of events that caused the fuel tank to ignite.
“It took 60 seconds to fully engulf the bus,” he said.
Fuel tanks on buses now are located in the rear and are encased in a protected compartment between steel rails.
According to the firm’s Web site, four years was spent investigating the case, and a “substantial” judgment was obtained after a six-week trial.
Hedlund said Ford does not want to disclose the ultimate result of the case.
But, since the case, the way buses are manufactured have changed, and Hedlund said he is proud that those changes have been made.
“I think everyone is going in the right direction (in making buses safer),” he said. “The aim is to make sure something like this never happens again.”
He remembers the devastation at what happened in the accident, and said it is still devastating for him to remember. The fight to change the way buses are manufactured, he said, was necessary.
“It was inspiring to be on the forefront of trying to save lives,” he said. “I think the idea of a bus erupting in flames today isn’t likely.”
Safest form of transportation today
Elly Martin of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, says school buses are now the safest form of transportation on the road today. She said statistics show its safer to send your child to school on the bus than to drive them to school.
A 1998 report on school bus safety by the NHTSA highlights a number of programs that have increased safety for students, bus drivers and other motorists, including the concept of “compartmentalization,” the concept of providing a “protective envelope consisting of strong, closely spaced seats that have energy-absorbing seat backs.”
Additionally, the report highlights Highway Safety Program Guideline No. 17, which mandates that all school buses be painted yellow and have retroreflective tape around the outside of all emergency exits.
So what about installing seat belts on buses?
U.S. Transportation Secretary Mary Peters announced last year a proposed rule to require extending the height of seat backs from 20 inches to 24 inches and to require installation of lap and shoulder belts on smaller buses.
“Our proposed rule would make children safer, put parents at ease and give communities a clearer picture of how to protect students,” Peters said in a November 2007 news release. “It’s never too late to learn, especially when it comes to protecting our children.”
The increased seat height will protect passengers from being thrown over a seat in a crash, Peters said.
Dr. Alan Ross, president of the National Coalition for School Bus Safety, said his group has been active in promoting changes to school bus safety for 47 years, and lobbies at the state and federal level for changes, including legislation in California and Texas requiring seat belts.
Ross said he hasn’t seen a lot of momentum from the government in terms of mandated safety requirements, but has seen increased awareness from parents and individual school districts around the country. He said about 800 school districts decided in 2007 to enhance bus safety, regardless of government mandates.
“More (people) are becoming aware and willing to spend the money, even though it’s not mandated,” Ross said.
Safer highway design
Doug Hecox of the U.S. Department of Transportation Federal Highway Administration said “a lot” has been done in the past 10 years to make highway travel safer for all drivers.
“There are a lot of simple things (that can be done) to make the big fixes,” he said.
One of the big improvements being seen in Kentucky is cable median barriers along interstates. The barriers are a supplement to guardrails that line the roadways, and help prevent vehicles from crossing medians into oncoming traffic.
Hecox said there are about 43,000 fatalities a year on highways – in 2006 there were 42,800. But, the road system per capita is safer now than ever before.
“Safety is our No. 1 priority,” he said.
A custom-built computer hooked up to a car allows the FHWA to test new roads before they’re opened, he said. But what that test can’t account for, however, is what happens if a driver isn’t paying attention.
So, Hecox said the FHWA is working with NHTSA to study what’s called “Human Factors,” which account for any change in the driver’s attention while they are on the road – everything from changing the radio station to being a little too tired can account for much of the danger on the road, he said. The study is to look at better ways to avoid such distractions.
Martin of the NHTSA says “driver inattention and distractions” are probably the biggest danger on America’s roads. “It’s a problem of great concern. Now there are more temptations (to distract you while driving).”
Hecox said the FHWA also is working to improve road design to make roads easier to navigate, and has implemented placing “wrong way” signs on interstate exit and entrance ramps, and on highways that aren’t limited access.
He said he hopes new road designs will make entering an exit ramp in the wrong direction “impossible” for drivers someday.
Additionally, more signage is being installed in work zones on highways, along with added presence of law enforcement to ensure drivers slow down when passing highway workers. He said FHWA also is working to provide law enforcement and first-responders to accident scenes with what is called a “rubbernecker drape,” to prevent accidents caused by other drivers who are trying to see what’s going on at accident scenes.
But the biggest improvement, Hecox said, is concentrated efforts on driver safety, including stricter drunken-driving laws and promoting awareness of the dangers of drinking and driving.
“The driver of today is smarter” about these issues, he said.
What the survivors say
Among the survivors of the Carrollton Bus Crash, opinions differ about how large a role the bus itself played in causing the 27 deaths.
Joe Percefull, who teaches middle school in Oldham County, said additional emergency exits and other safety features added to school buses have eased his worries.
“I feel 100-percent safe on field trips,” he said.
Percefull said he believes improved safety standards would mean lives saved, should a similar accident occur today. “I feel pretty confident saying something I went through is never going to happen again.”
However, Lee Williams, who lost his wife and two daughters in the crash, insists it never would have happened had Mahoney not been on the road in the first place.
“It never was about bus safety,” he said. “It was about a drunk driver.”
During Larry Mahoney’s trial in 1989, Williams said prosecutors showed him photographs of his loved ones lost in the accident.
“Who was this?” the attorney would ask.
“That’s my wife.”
“What happened to her?”
“She was killed by a drunk driver.”
That exchange continued, he said, over and over, as photos were shown of his wife, Joy, and their daughters, Kristen and Robin.
Williams pointed out that “of 14,000 or 15,000 buses made” similar to the one involved in the 1988 crash, “only one caused death,” Lee Williams said in an interview last month. “That’s a pretty good record for a bus that was [considered] unsafe.”
Ciaren Madden, who was badly burned in the crash, said she would like to see lawmakers do as much to toughen drunken-driving laws as they did to improve bus safety.
“If they put in the effort ee I think our country would be a better country.”
Quinlan of the NTSB said Kentucky’s laws mandating the use of seat belts in vehicles that have them has helped save lives, and he also believes the graduated drivers licensing program is a positive step.
There are still some things the state could do today, he said.
Quinlan said Kentucky’s biggest issue, in terms of improving highway safety, would be revising laws regarding drunken drivers.
Quinlan said the NTSB recommended in 1989 that Kentucky enact administrative license revocation for people convicted of drunken driving. The legislation didn’t pass, but Quinlan said he and his staff continue to work with Kentucky and other states to enact its recommendations.
With the bus crash in Carrollton, Quinlan said, “It was so clear, so early, that this was something we needed to look into.”
He said he has met a number of the survivors from the crash and says they are all wonderful people.
“They’ve been through a lot of trauma and pain, and we should always remember those who died or were injured,” he said. “And we need to take action.”
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