Parents wonder about school bus safety

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Jim Marti wants to know: Just who exactly is responsible for school bus drivers?

Marti’s son was on a school bus in September, 2006, when it stalled on a hill, rolled backward down an embankment and came to rest hanging over an I-94 exit lane near downtown St. Paul.

No one was seriously injured, but Marti and other Capitol Hill Magnet School parents say their questions about driver training and safety haven’t been answered. They wonder if school districts exercise private oversight of private bus contractors.

The Office of the Legislative Auditor reports that of the 625 bus accidents in 2006, about 30 percent were attributable to bus driver error. An OLA report, released in January, found few districts enforce laws requiring bus companies to provide districts a yearly list of drivers, validation of licenses and a summary of driver drug tests.

The Legislature is considering new policy requiring private bus companies to report each year on driver training, recruitment, turnover and previous traffic convictions.

Marti still doesn’t know what caused the bus carrying his son and 39 classmates to roll out of control. He said parents were told the bus left the garage low on gas, stalled while climbing Arundel Street at about 2:30 p.m. and lost power to the brakes, causing the bus to roll down the embankment.

“Why was the bus allowed to leave the garage low on fuel?” Marti asked. He also said a Minnesota Highway Patrol investigation found the brakes to be in perfect condition.

So what happened?

“The driver panicked, that’s what happened,” Marti said. “It was driver error. My son (14 at the time) and his friend shepherded students up to the front. The driver was unresponsive. Some onlookers helped evacuate the bus, but it was two eighth graders who kept their heads. I don’t know what happened to the driver.”

Marti said problems with the driver were noted before the accident. Parents reported the driver to the school several times for dropping students off at the wrong stop, driving over curbs and exercising poor discipline on the bus. Children also reported erratic driving several times.

When Marti asked St. Paul Public Schools for information about the driver, they referred him to the contractor – First Student – who didn’t give him any answers. He helped form a parents group after the accident, but they didn’t get any answers either. “The school district keeps bus contractors at arms length. We found out nothing about the incident (from First Student) and nothing since.”

There were 890 school bus crashes in Minnesota in 2000 and 625 in 2006, the report showed. About one-third of those crashes were attributable to bus driver error. Private contractors provide about 59 percent of student transportation miles driven in 2006, the OLA reported. About half the state’s 340 school districts contract with private transportation fleets.

Fifteen of the 24 districts it visited did not ensure the contractor verified its drivers’ licenses. Nineteen of the 24 districts did not verify if drivers were subject to random drug and alcohol tests, nor did they learn of the test results.

Bus inspections can include inspection of driver records. In 2006 and 2007, the Department of Public Safety performed 591 bus inspections that included the bus driver – about 3 percent of all inspections. DPS inspectors say they rarely conduct the driver record inspections because they don’t have time or the records are at a different location.

“This points out that we have a system that can break down at any time spectacularly and with no response,” Marti said. “Will it take a fatality to change this?”

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