July 25, 2019

Chair DeFazio Statement from Hearing on School Bus Safety

Washington, D.C. — The following are opening remarks, as prepared for delivery, from Chair of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure Peter DeFazio (D-OR) during today’s hearing titled: “Examining the Federal Role in Improving School Bus Safety.”

Chair DeFazio:

Thank you, Madam Chair, for holding this important hearing. Ensuring the safe transportation of passengers is a critical responsibility of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. I can’t think of a more prominent reminder of why we must raise the bar on safety than protecting school children.

Earlier this year, the Subcommittee held a highway safety hearing, and the statistics I cited bear repeating. More than 100 people die every day in motor vehicle accidents – that’s one life lost every fifteen minutes. In 2017, 37,133 people were killed on our roadways - the equivalent of about 218 fully loaded airplanes falling out of the sky in a single year.

The Nation’s 26 million children who travel to and from school in a yellow bus are afforded the safest form of transportation on our roads. While school buses are involved in only a tiny fraction of all fatal crashes, this is still unacceptable given the level of overall carnage on our roads. Between 2008 and 2017, 264 school-age children died in crashes involving a school bus. We can and must do more to save children’s lives.

Protecting students on the bus is step one. This means transporting as many students as possible on school buses, and ensuring those children have the strongest occupant protection measures. As we will hear in witness testimony today, several States have grappled with how to strike this balance of stronger occupant protection through seat belts with the realities of tight local and state education budgets. My home State of Oregon does not require seat belts on school buses, but mandates that if they are installed, they must be three-point belts.   

A school bus is only as safe as the person controlling it. Well-qualified and medically fit drivers are a critical factor in ensuring the safe carriage of children. In four recent fatal school bus crashes, driver fitness and certification issues played a significant role.

A 2016 crash in Baltimore, Maryland, killed six people when a school bus, thankfully not carrying children, collided with a transit bus when the driver had a seizure. This driver had a history of seizures and over five years had been involved in at least 12 crashes or incidents while operating a school bus or personal vehicle. In one of these prior incidents, according to the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigation, the driver struck multiple poles and a parked car after he “passed out” while driving a school bus. Yet he was put back behind the wheel.

In a 2016 crash in Chattanooga, Tennessee, six elementary school children died in a school bus crash caused by the driver’s excessive speed and cell phone use at the time of the crash. The 24-year-old driver had only been driving for about 5 months, during which the school district received over a dozen complaints from parents, students, and the school principal about the driver’s erratic driving and speeding. The NTSB report found that the lack of driver oversight by the school district was a causal factor.

In a 2017 crash in Oakland, Iowa, a school bus driver and his only student passenger – the first one to be picked up on the route – died when the driver backed into a ditch and the engine caught fire. According to the NTSB report, the same student had complained three times to the school prior to the accident that the driver “backed into things and ran stop signs.” The driver had significant medical problems including a spinal condition that inhibited his ability to walk, and his ability to sit for more than 30 minutes. The NTSB report cites that it is “extremely concerning” that the driver was not able to extricate himself and his passenger during the fire emergency when there was no physical barrier to escape the fire.

In 2018 a crash near Mount Olive, New Jersey killed a student and teacher because the driver was attempting an illegal U-turn on Interstate 80 and collided with a dump truck. The driver had received eight speeding tickets and had his license suspended 14 times in his 40 year driving career.

All of these tragedies could have been prevented with better oversight of these drivers by their employers. Congress has taken significant steps to ensure that drivers who hold Commercial Drivers’ Licenses (CDL) are medically qualified, subject to drug and alcohol testing, and adequately trained. We need to ensure that existing protections extend to drivers who carry our most precious cargo, school children. We must also look at additional measures to ensure that employers are notified immediately of a change in a driver’s CDL status, such as license suspension, so that children are not knowingly placed in harm’s way.

I thank our witnesses for being here today and look forward to your testimony on ways we can strengthen school bus safety.

Chair DeFazio’s statement as delivered can be found here.