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In wake of Woodmore tragedy, NTSB recommends new buses be built with seatbelts

NTSB investigators look at the damaged Woodmore Elementary school bus one week after the November, 2016 crash. Image: NTSB

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) held a hearing in the nation's capital Tuesday morning to discuss school bus transportation safety issues raised from two recent crashes, including and especially the Woodmore Elementary school bus crash on November 21st, 2016 that left six children dead.

The NTSB identified four main causes & contributing factors to the crash:

  1. The bus driver's excessive speed and cellphone use,
  2. Failure to provide oversight by Durham School Services for an inexperienced driver with "escalating risky behavior,"
  3. The Hamilton Co. Dept. of Education's lack of followup to ensure Durham had addressed a known issue, and
  4. Lack of passenger shoulder belts on the bus.

At the end of the meeting, the NTSB board voted 3-0 to recommend to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration that all new school buses be required to be made with seatbelts.

Tennessee State Representative JoAnne Favors introduced legislation earlier this year to require the state to purchase seatbelts for all public school buses. But that bill went nowhere. A memo from the General Assembly said the bill would cost more than 5 million dollars a year.

Watch the full hearing below:

The NTSB released its report on the Woodmore crash on Friday. The report found that the bus driver, Johnthony Walker, had a history of driving complaints.

The agency found 10 complaints of speeding or erratic driving had been made against Walker in the months before the crash.

At the hearing, investigators dived deep into the data, showing diagrams of how the crash happened, and where the students who were killed were sitting on the bus.

Investigators concluded that seatbelts would have made a difference in the crash.

They also concluded "Collision avoidance systems and electronic stability control could have prevented, or at least mitigated" the crash. Investigators say a collision avoidance system also could have made things different.

Johnthony Walker was later found guilty on criminally negligent homicide and sentenced to four years in prison.

Tuesday morning's NTSB hearing also discussed a crash on November 1st, 2016 that involved a Baltimore City school bus and a transit bus. That crash also killed six people.

Related | Woodmore driver convicted, but does new NTSB report show the fault goes beyond one man?

Full recommendations from the NTSB report:

Safety Recommendations

"Safety recommendations are the most important part of the Safety Board's mandate. The Board must address safety deficiencies immediately, and therefore often issues recommendations before the completion of investigations. Recommendations are based on findings of the investigation, and may address deficiencies that do not pertain directly to what is ultimately determined to be the cause of the accident.

For example, in the course of its investigation of the crash of TWA flight 800, once it was determined that an explosion in the center fuel tank caused the breakup of the aircraft, the Board issued an urgent safety recommendation and three other recommendations in 1996, four years before completion of its investigation, that were aimed at eliminating explosive fuel/air vapors in airliner fuel tanks. The Board issued an additional recommendation in 1997 regarding the detection of explosives and six recommendations in 1998 to improve fuel quantity indication systems. When the Board issued its final report on the TWA 800 accident in 2000, four additional safety recommendations were issued that focused on the aircraft wiring systems."

Public Hearing

"The Board may hold a public hearing as part of a major transportation accident investigation. The purpose of the hearing is two-fold; first, to gather sworn testimony from subpoenaed witnesses on issues identified by the Board during the course of the investigation, and, second, to allow the public to observe the progress of the investigation. Hearings are usually held within six months of an accident, but may be delayed for complex investigations."

The Remainder of the Investigation and Final Report

"More months of tests and analysis eventually lead to the preparation of a draft final report by Safety Board staff. Parties do not participate in the analysis and report writing phase of NTSB investigations; however, they are invited to submit their proposed findings of cause and proposed safety recommendations, which are made part of the public docket. The Board then deliberates over the final report in a public Board meeting in Washington, D.C. Non-Safety Board personnel, including parties and family members, cannot interact with the Board during that meeting.

Once a major report is adopted at a Board Meeting, an abstract of that report - containing the Board's conclusions, probable cause and safety recommendations - is placed on the Board's web site under "Publications". The full report typically appears on the web site several weeks later."

Carina Noble, Senior Vice President of Communications at Durham, released the following statement Tuesday:

"We are very sorry that this tragedy happened on one of our buses. Our thoughts remain with the families and friends of those who lost their lives or were injured.

Immediately following the accident, we sought to learn any and all lessons from the investigation. We have put in place a nationwide system to record and track complaints. This BusReport system was commended as ‘very effective’ in the hearing today, and we believe it will continue to help address the local issues identified. Also shared today, we have accelerated the roll-out of industry-leading smart-safety camera technology called DriveCam.

We will continue to review the NTSB report and will work with school boards and relevant authorities on the technologies identified as an opportunity to enhance industry-wide safety performance."

Michael Gilliland with the Stand Up for School Bus Safety Coalition also released a statement:

“The NTSB report on the tragedy in Chattanooga only raises more questions about Durham’s cavalier approach when it comes to safety. The fact that the company failed to take action after multiple complaints from community members and lacked a systematic process for addressing these issues reveals a corporate mindset that doesn’t put our children’s well-being first. Most drivers are committed to doing their jobs safely, but they can’t do it alone - safety must be at the heart of Durham’s culture from the ground up. The Stand Up for School Bus Safety Coalition will continue to do everything we can to hold Durham accountable and demand the highest possible standards for students in Chattanooga and across the country.”

Read the full report here.

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