Cummings, Tenn. congressmen call for hearing on school bus safety after deadly crashes

After recent crashes, Rep. Elijah Cummings and two Tennessee lawmakers want Congress to investigate school bus

Rep. Elijah E. Cummings and two Tennessee lawmakers are asking for a congressional hearing on school bus safety after deadly crashes in Baltimore and Chattanooga last year.

In November, six adults died when a school bus crashed into a transit bus in Southwest Baltimore. A preliminary federal investigation found that the school bus driver had a history of seizures and had been involved in a dozen crashes in recent years.

Six children died in the Tennessee crash Nov. 21. The company that owned the bus had been linked to three deaths in recent years, according to news reports.

The lawmakers said the crashes "have raised urgent questions about the oversight of commercial school bus operators, including the adequacy of current procedures for assessing drivers' medical fitness for duty and the safety history of companies that operate school buses."

Cummings, a Democrat, and Tennessee Reps. John J. Duncan Jr., a Republican, and Steve Cohen, a Democrat, made the request in a letter to Reps. Bill Shuster, R-Pa., and Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., the chairman and ranking member, respectively, of the House Transportation Committee.

"While the NTSB investigations of these horrific crashes are ongoing, the facts in the cases that have come to light raise serious concern," Cummings and the two Tennessee representatives wrote. "We urge the Committee to utilize its authority over the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to probe what more can be done to protect the nation's schoolchildren, and whether any changes to federal law are warranted."

In Baltimore, driver Glenn Chappell was on his way to pick up special-needs students and transport them to Dallas F. Nicholas Elementary School in Old Goucher on Nov. 1 when he apparently lost control of the bus on Frederick Road in Irvington. An aide who was the only passenger aboard the school bus told National Transportation Safety Board investigators that Chappell did not respond to questions after the bus rear-ended a Ford Mustang and before it plowed into a Maryland Transit Administration bus, killing its driver and four passengers, along with himself.

The NTSB found that Chappell, 67, had been involved in at least 12 accidents in the past five years, and that in some of them he experienced "seizure-like episodes." It also found that he had recently suffered a seizure at the West Baltimore offices of his employer, private bus company AA Affordable Transportation.

Under a safety program the motor carrier safety agency oversees, drivers of school buses and other commercial vehicles are typically disqualified from operating those vehicles if they have a history of seizures. The agency requires drivers to be examined at least every two years by a medical professional trained to evaluate their fitness to get behind the wheel.

Chappell had received such a physical months before the crash and had been cleared to drive, but doctors who have spoken with The Baltimore Sun said that the physical would not have revealed any seizure disorder Chappell might have had unless he disclosed it or showed symptoms.

In the Tennessee crash, school bus driver Johnthony Walker, 24, is facing charges of vehicular homicide, reckless endangerment and reckless driving. Police said he was speeding on a narrow, winding road when he lost control of the bus, flipping it onto its side and striking a tree. Six elementary school students died and more than 20 were injured.

Walker had been involved in a crash that caused property damage in September. His employer, Illinois-based Durham School Services, has had 346 crashes over two years, including three resulting in deaths and 142 with injuries, according to federal motor carrier safety data.

The congressmen asked for the hearing to be held "early in the 115th Congress," the session that began this month and runs through 2018.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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