Child Safety Alarms on School Buses: SB 1072
Posted in Legal Questions on August 15, 2016
There have been numerous items in the news about children being left on school buses, sometimes with fatal consequences. It doesn’t happen very often, but when it does, it sets off a fervor among parents concerned for their child’s safety. This only happening once would still be one too many, so a lot of school districts are trying to figure out ways to prevent it.
Paul Lee was an autistic student who was accidentally left on the bus because the driver did not do his mandatory seat check after a shift. He succumbed to the heat inside the bus. In response to this, the California State Senate quickly pushed through SB 1072, which would require an alarm system that would activate upon the engine being turned off, and the driver could only deactivate by walking to the back and pushing a button, thereby checking all the seats. But this is not the only concern among parents, especially those with special needs children.
Why Do Bus Drivers Not Check the Seats?
Children with special needs are usually the victims of such atrocities, and it is because many of them have problems that limit their speaking ability and/or cognitive function. Most recently, a second-grade student with special needs in Washington, D.C. was left on a bus in 90-degree heat. The exact cause of this hasn’t been determined, but it sounds like the driver did not bother checking the seats after their shift. This happened to a 16-year old student with special needs who was wearing a three-point harness and did not have the ability to remove it himself. Both of these students ended up being found unharmed.
The alarm system is certainly a good start; it creates an extra step for the driver to help ensure that no one gets left behind. But even before this device began to be implemented, all bus drivers have a certain protocol they must follow when doing pre and post-trip inspections on the inside and outside of their bus.
In terms of post-trip, the very first thing mentioned, in bold face type, is “first and foremost, check every single seat for any sleeping or hiding students.” They must also make sure that all windows are up, that nothing was left behind and that there is no damage to the interior. So why would they not do something so simple? Part of it could be laziness; they look in the rearview mirror, see nothing, and assume the bus is empty.
What Are the School Bus Driver’s Responsibilities?
Bus drivers not properly doing their post-inspection duty is not the only safety issue. Harnesses and restraints need to be properly applied, children need to be counted and the exterior needs to be constantly checked, as wear and tear can accumulate quickly. Most of the time these safety concerns do not come into play, as they can often be easily accomplished. The biggest concern is that a school bus is a large vehicle, and the driver may not be able to see everything going on around him.
The Kansas State Board of Education conducts a yearly survey of fatalities involving school buses, and the biggest takeaway is that 74 percent of the school-bus related deaths involve children between the ages of 1-9. This is because children of this age are much smaller than those who are older, and therefore can be tough to see, especially if the driver gets distracted during a drop off for one reason or another. From 2000-2011, 1,386 people died from school related transportation accidents. And while some of these are just freak accidents, many of them could have been avoided if the bus driver had been a bit more attentive.
There is extensive protocol that a bus driver has to follow in pre and post trip inspections to ensure maximum safety for the students, particularly when it comes to loading and unloading guidelines. It’s recommended that they never back up unless absolutely necessary, never move the bus if students are within 10 feet on any side, and to count the number of students that should be getting on or off very carefully. They are also taught to never trust any oncoming motorist, and the procedure for the driver is to teach the students who are exiting the bus a horn signal they will use to warn of impending danger.
How Can This Be Kept From Happening?
While the Paul Lee bill, aka SB 1072, is a great concept – the driver must walk to the back of the bus to turn off an alarm, thereby being forced to check all the seats – this will not solve the problem of personal responsibility that the driver must have. A 13-year old special needs student in Florida was left on the bus twice in one week due to serious lapses in judgement by two bus drivers. One had another student disable that alarm in the back, and another walked right by the student and did not see him, due to her neglect of post-inspection duties. So what could help solve the problem of children being left on the bus permanently?
School districts must ensure that the drivers they hire not only have an immaculate driving record, but will not be lazy when it comes time for their shift to end. It’s not hard to check the seats after your shift, or count the number of kids who get on at the school and get off at the stops. Responsibility and safety of the children on the bus lies with the driver and the driver alone. And while that may be a heavy burden, someone who is willing to do all that the job entails will find keeping the passengers safe to be easy.