Lax standards for school bus drivers and inadequate fire suppression equipment contributed to the deaths of both the 74-year-old driver and a 16-year-old passenger in a 2017 school bus fire in western Iowa, the National Transportation Safety Board said Tuesday.
The Iowa crash spotlights problems with school buses nationwide, Robert Sumwalt, the chairman of the federal investigative agency’s board, said in opening statements at Tuesday’s meeting. Not only have federal school bus fire safety standards remained unchanged since 1971 — the year the room-sized microprocessor was invented — but in “crash after crash,” school districts continue to employ “medically unfit drivers continuing to work past the point where their condition creates a hazard,” Sumwalt said.
“We’ve got to send a message that by God, if you’re a school district, you have a responsibility to make sure that you’re providing the oversight that those kids deserve,” he said.
The school bus industry has voluntarily exceeded the federal standards in many cases, Sumwalt said, but his agency wants to see a “single, high bar for school bus fire safety” nationwide. Among the recommendations approved Tuesday are requirements for fire suppression systems on all new buses, and that they be installed on older buses.
The Dec. 12, 2017, school bus fire near Oakland, Iowa, claimed the lives of both the driver, Donald Hendricks, and Riverside Community Schools sophomore Megan Klindt. The investigation showed that Hendricks used a walker and cane to get around, and was scheduled for back surgery a few days later. Because of his mobility issues, the bus driver wasn’t able to escape the fire or help Klindt escape, the agency said.
Investigators said Hendricks had just picked up Klindt, the first student on his morning route, and was backing up when the rear wheels of the bus dropped into a 3-foot drainage ditch and became stuck, blocking the exhaust pipe. They concluded the fire likely started in the bus’s turbocharger, which overheated after Hendricks revved the engine in an attempt to free the bus.
School districts have a responsibility to ensure their bus drivers are “medically fit, not only to operate the vehicle, but also to assist in its evacuation in an emergency,” Sumwalt said in a blistering opening statement at Tuesday’s meeting. “But in Oakland, Iowa, that did not happen.”
The Iowa Administrative Code requires that school bus drivers be physically able to help ill or injured passengers, and that school districts employing or contracting with them evaluate their ability to assist in an evacuation. Sumwalt said the Riverside Schools’ transportation supervisor, Hendricks’ coworkers and administrators “knew of the driver’s physical impairment,” yet he was allowed to continue to operate the bus.
The school district “had the knowledge it needed to act; it did not,” Sumwalt said. “In fact, in recent years, it had gone so far as to do away with physical performance tests for drivers.”
The crash made vividly clear the need for medically fit school bus drivers and “how flawed or absent oversight can lead to tragic results,” Sumwalt said.
He posed a series of questions for school administrators to ensure that “what happened near Oakland will not happen to them.”
“What do you know about your drivers? What do you know about their training and their ability to perform during an emergency? What could you learn by testing your drivers’ ability to physically perform their duties during a drill?”
The Iowa Department of Education said in a statement that it has asked the State Board of Education to adopt new rules “to ensure school bus evacuation drills are being completed twice a year as required by law, to require more safety equipment on school buses, including seat belts and additional stop arms on all new buses, and to require inspections of all vehicles used to carry students to school activities.”
Riverside Community Schools Superintendent Timothy Mitchell also issued a statement after Tuesday’s hearing.
“The Riverside School District appreciates the work of the National Transportation Board (NTSB) in this matter,” the statement said. “The district has fully cooperated in the investigation. Our top priority is the safety of our students and staff.”