The Riverside Community School District in Iowa had a policy requiring bus drivers to be medically cleared or pass a physical performance test. Nonetheless, it employed a driver “whose limited mobility due to medical conditions might have prevented him from evacuating the bus” following an engine fire, the National Transportation Safety Board found. As a result, the driver and the first passenger he picked up one day were unable to escape the bus and died.
“The Riverside Community School District exercised poor oversight of driver safety by allowing a driver with known, significantly limited mobility to operate a school bus and by not removing a driver from duty who was unable to perform required safety duties,” stated the NTSB in a probable factors report issued June 18.
The accident occurred on Dec. 12, 2017, when the 74-year-old driver backed the bus out of a driveway and across a road, causing the rear wheels to drop into a three-foot-deep ditch, after picking up the first passenger of the morning. As he attempted to pull the rear wheels back onto the road, a fire broke out in the engine compartment and quickly spread inside the bus, a 2004 International.
“The probable cause of the fire was ignition of a fuel source on the exterior of the engine’s turbocharger due to turbocharger overload and heat production, resulting from the blockage of the exhaust pipe by the bus’s position in the ditch and the driver’s attempts to accelerate out of the ditch,” NTSB found. “Contributing to the severity of the fire was the spread of flames, heat, and toxic gases from the engine into the passenger compartment through an incomplete firewall.
“It is likely that the bus driver’s progressive chronic back disease, which caused severe chronic pain, impaired his ability to evacuate the school bus himself or to assist the passenger to evacuate. If the Riverside Community School District had adhered to the requirements of its transportation policy regarding the physical abilities of school bus drivers and had not allowed the accident driver to operate a bus until he was medically cleared and fit for duty (or could pass a physical performance test), the fatal outcome of what should have been a survivable run-off-road, low-speed crash might have been avoided.”
The safety board also cited the lack of emergency training and safety drills that could have prepared the student to operate the front door of the bus; the lack of an engine fire suppression system; and the lack of a complete firewall between the engine and passenger compartments. The latter factor permitted “superheated gases, smoke and fire” exceeding federal flammability safety standards to reach interior components.
“The passenger was possibly attempting to assist the school bus driver, whose limited mobility due to medical conditions might have prevented him from evacuating the bus, and she did not perceive the immediate danger before being overcome by smoke and superheated gases,” the board continued.
NTSB recommended that federal regulators and school bus manufacturers require all new school buses to be equipped with fire suppression systems and “develop standards for newly manufactured school buses, especially those with engines that extend beyond the firewall, to ensure that no hazardous quantity of gas or flame can pass through the firewall from the engine compartment to the passenger compartment.
The board also recommended that Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards for school buses “adopt the more rigorous performance standards for interior flammability and smoke emissions characteristics already in use throughout the U.S. Department of Transportation for commercial aviation and rail passenger transportation.”
State governments were advised to revise school bus driver requirements “so that all drivers must pass a physical performance test on hiring and at last annually and also whenever a driver’s physical condition changes in a manner that could affect his or her ability to physically perform school bus driver duties, including helping passengers evacuate a bus in an emergency.” States were also asked to “require twice-yearly documented school bus evacuation training and drills” for students.
Parents of the girl killed in the fire sued the school district in April, alleging it was “reckless or negligent in failing to ensure that adopted procedures and protocols were properly followed.” The suit said the student had complained about the driver’s actions in the past. Once, the suit alleged, the driver ran a stop sign in the bus and nearly collided with a vehicle driven by the girl’s father.