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How safe are students traveling on school buses in metro Atlanta?

My AJC colleague Marlon Walker researched and wrote a remarkable story about the safety records of school bus drivers in metro Atlanta. His findings ought to trouble parents whose children ride school buses.

In my view, all the districts in the story inadequately review driver records and fail to act decisively when they uncover unsafe behaviors. I want to share one excerpt from this disconcerting story:

More than 4,000 bus drivers hit the roads daily in metro Atlanta to deliver about 300,000 students to and from school. Those drivers can be as young as 18, with several districts employing drivers as old as 87. School buses in metro Atlanta are involved in about 100 accidents per month, according to the most recent data available.

In 2016, five people — including one student — were killed in metro Atlanta accidents involving school buses, according to data collected by the Georgia Department of Transportation. That number was up from three in 2015 and two in 2014. Injuries also have risen more than 60 percent in recent years, from just under 200 in 2013 to more than 330 in 2016.

Not every district has been recording their bus accidents, which doesn’t surprise DOE officials. They require school districts to report accidents to the state, but admit many districts have a bad track record with compliance, which cannot be enforced.

The data also show school districts sometimes ignore their own driver regulations, including those that stipulate how often a driver can cause an accident before his or her job is at risk. One metro driver has a dozen accidents on her record, when two can be cause for firing.

I admire any 87-year-old who is still working, but I have to question whether driving a school bus is the appropriate job. According to the CDC: Age-related declines in vision and cognitive functioning (ability to reason and remember), as well as physical changes, may affect some older adults’ driving abilities.

I am also troubled by a pattern we've seen before -- the state requires the collection of data but lacks the staff to review the information or follow-up on discrepancies, including some that are mind-boggling.

For example, Walker reports:

DeKalb County bus drivers have been responsible for an average of about two accidents a day since 2012, according to data district officials admit was not complete.

DeKalb failed to deliver accurate accident data to the state. It did not report any crashes in 2014 and only two in 2015, but reported 206 crashes from July 21 through November of 2016, more than any school district in Georgia for the year. The district learned of the yearly discrepancies from an inquiry by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and has since reported an additional 700 accidents to the state from 2014, 2015 and 2016. In an email late last year, safety and training manager Alexander R. Riley said the person expected to submit accident records to the state reported during an exit interview that she had not done so.

Here is a key comment in the story that speaks to the lack of action by either the state or districts:

Ned Einstein, a New York-based transportation consultant and expert witness in crash cases involving buses, suggests several factors keep transportation departments from working to keep children safe on the road, including the time it takes to investigate driving trends and the costs of drivers and transportation safety. As a transit head, he recalled adding “cover drivers” who rode on buses to look for deficiencies and to improve performance, and who often caught drivers’ bad habits.

“This person would figure out what was wrong,” he said. “We’d fix it in a day.”

He said Georgia Department of Education officials’ admission that they do little to get districts to comply with submitting bus accident data suggests there’s not enough money budgeted for safety — at either the state or district level. “As a society, we’re not willing to pay enough to make this safe,” he said.

Take a look at Walker's story and let's discuss.


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About the Author

Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.