There were almost 200 accidents involving school buses between April 2016 and March 7, 2019, according to Carroll County Public Schools data — although few of them were serious.
Forty-five accidents were reported in 2016, 65 in 2017, 75 in 2018 and 12 so far in 2019.
Most of the 197 accidents, according to a Carroll County Times analysis, were minor: 13 accidents over that time span resulted in personal injury, and 31 resulted in “appreciable” property damage, meaning damage that cost at least $3,000.
No accidents in that time period resulted in a fatality.
“In our view, one preventable accident is one too many, the way we look at it. But given the responsibility and what these drivers are doing every day and throughout the year, it is, in my view, an excellent record,” said Michael Hardesty, director of transportation services for the school system. “We work hard to maintain that.”
The data provided to the Times do not specify what kind of damage or injury occurred in each case. Hardesty stressed that “personal injury” could mean anything from a student bumping their head on a window if the bus hits the breaks hard to a distracted driver rear-ending a bus and hurting their neck.
“Most of these are minor bumps and bruises, with maybe the child jostled off the seat or something like that,” he said.
School buses in Carroll County travel over 5.3 million miles each school year, Hardesty said. And, while 134 of the 197 incidents were deemed to be “preventable,” that does not mean the school bus driver was found at fault in each case. An accident could be preventable, for example, if a bus driver could have been driving more defensively when another driver crosses lanes and hits the bus. In that type of situation, an accident could be deemed “preventable,” but the driver would not have been the person who caused the accident.
When the school system’s Accident Review Committee meets each quarter, to go over bus accidents, it’s “not determining fault,” but looking at, “Did the driver do everything possible to avoid it,” said John O’Meally, chairman of the committee.
Hardesty called the “preventable” designation a “very high standard” that is set determined by guidelines from the Maryland State Department of Education. Standards of preventability are determined by a 14-page document that covers different types of accidents. He said the school system does not track the number of accidents in which police determine bus drivers to have been at fault.
Safety and prevention
An accident between a school bus and a tractor-trailer in late March in Westminster did not cause any injuries, but prompted some concerned reactions among Carroll County residents.
When there are accidents, drivers take remedial training. Additionally, every driver must take 17 hours of pre-service instruction and a minimum of six hours of in-service training every year.
“The drivers that do have serious preventable accidents are brought in for remedial training. We do a lot of training related to defensive driving,” Hardesty said. “I think it has resulted in lower numbers of accidents, considering that anything that strikes that bus is an accident.”
When there are bus accidents and drivers are found at fault, Carroll County uses a progressive discipline system, meaning drivers could be given a written reprimand, be suspended or be decertified, depending on the severity of the accident.
Two immediate grounds for decertification, Hardesty said, are not reporting an accident — no matter how minor — or failing a drug test.
Drug tests are required by procedure any time there is a fatality, any time an ambulance is called, any time a bus driver is given a citation by police and any time a vehicle is towed. Drivers also have to pass a pre-employment drug test.
The numbers in Carroll County track with national trends. Students are considered about 70 times safer riding the school bus to get to and from school than traveling in a car, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. School bus passengers account for less than 1% of all child fatalities that happen during school transportation.
Buses in Carroll County practice evacuation drills twice per year, Hardesty said. He said it would take a “catastrophic-type accident” for students to be seriously injured when they’re on the bus.
The “biggest area of concern” he said, is students boarding and getting off the bus, and making sure students recognize that there can be traffic around them.
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“It takes something ungodly to happen to seriously injure kids on the bus,” Hardesty said.