Several Georgia education officials said Tuesday that the horrific school bus crash that killed at least five elementary school students in Chattanooga will spark a review of this state’s guidelines for bus drivers — particularly its age requirement.
School bus drivers can be as young as 18 in Georgia, as long as they have passed a driving skills test and other requirements. Some districts, like Gwinnett and Chatham, require drivers to be 21 or older.
“That may be a hole we have,” state Board of Education chairman Mike Royal said of the state’s minimum age requirement.
Some state leaders said in general, Georgia’s requirements for bus drivers exceed national standards. Before someone can drive a school bus in Georgia, he or she must take 12 hours of classroom instruction, six hours driving without students and six hours of driving with students. Drivers must take annual mandatory training on traffic laws pertaining to school bus operations and safety. The amount of training is determined by the state school board.
Georgia’s laws do not mention mental health checks.
Tennessee requires its drivers to go through four hours of training each year, and they have to take an exam.
The driver in the Tennessee crash, Johnthony Walker, 24, has been charged with five counts of vehicular homicide. Officials continued an investigation Tuesday into what caused the crash while several students were being treated for their injuries.
Several local districts, such as Cobb, DeKalb and Gwinnett, have additional annual requirements that include physical exams, driving tests and random drug screenings. DeKalb does monthly checks of driving records. Cobb teaches its drivers CPR, and all drivers are required to update their certification every two years.
“I think the state and the counties are doing an excellent job of recruiting and training,” said state Rep. Brooks Coleman, R-Duluth, chairman of the House Education committee, who drove a school bus for a few years in the 1960s when he was a teacher.
In DeKalb, the state’s third-largest school district, drivers received 114 citations during three school years from August 2013 through May 2016. District officials did not provide a list of drivers cited. According to the district’s driver policy, any driver with two or more serious citations in a three-year period could be recommended for termination. A driver convicted of DUI also would be recommended for termination.
In Gwinnett, the state’s largest school district, drivers can be terminated depending on what type of violation occurred and how close the citation is to a previous citation, district spokeswoman Sloan Roach said. Gwinnett checks drivers’ traffic records as far back as seven years, Roach said.
Some metro Atlanta parents have complained that many drivers are overworked, noting that some cover multiple routes with kids sitting four to a seat or standing in the aisles. DeKalb County Superintendent Steve Green said last year he’d try to address such concerns in his district by hiring more drivers.
“We’re among the lowest-paid (employees) in the district, yet we deliver the most precious cargo of all,” one bus driver said at a DeKalb school board meeting last year.
Bus driver shortages have been a problem throughout metro Atlanta. Many work as drivers to get health insurance, but those costs are rising. Starting pay in some parts of the region, like Atlanta, can be as low as $13,000 a year. Gwinnett puts signs on school buses parked in front of some schools to recruit drivers. Some school districts hire contractors to drive school buses.
Royal said the state board has had discussions in recent years about bus driver conduct and safety, primarily during parental appeals of school disciplinary actions taken because of student behavior on buses.
“Maybe, this is as good of a time as any to look at (our policy) and review it,” said Royal, also a Gwinnett school district parent.
Coleman, too, anticipates discussion of Georgia’s regulations when the Legislature convenes in January.
“If there is something we need to do, we need to do it,” he said.
Previous fatal school bus crashes
National Highway Traffic Safety Administration statistics indicate travel by school bus is far less risky than in other vehicles. From 2004 to 2013, U.S. drivers were involved in 340,039 fatal traffic crashes. Of those, 1,214, just .4%, were classified as “school-transportation-related,” involving a school bus or other vehicle transporting children to or from school or related activities. But there have been school bus tragedies over the years, including these.
7 killed — July 31, 1991 when a chartered school bus with defective brakes carrying 45 Girl Scouts and their adult chaperones tumbled down a hillside near Palm Springs, Calif., and smashed into a boulder-strewn gully.
10 killed — April 10, 2014 when a FedEx truck veered across Interstate 5 near Orlando and crashed into a bus carrying high school students from Los Angeles.
21 killed — Sept. 21, 1989 when a school bus collided with a soft drink truck and fell into a water-filled pit near Mission, Texas.
27 killed — Feb. 28, 1958 when a bus carrying 48 elementary and high school students plunged down an embankment in Prestonsburg, Ky., and into swollen river waters, where it was swept downstream and submerged.
29 killed — May 21, 1976 when a bus carrying students from the Yuba City High School choir plunged off a freeway ramp near Martinez, Calif., killing 28 students and a teacher.
Source: National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, Los Angeles Times, Associated Press