When the school bus carrying Susan Campbell’s son and other children pulled into her north Fulton County subdivision in the fall of 2013, the back bumper was dragging on the road.
Campbell said the students were on edge. One had banged his head. But where did the accident take place? Campbell was confused why the driver, whom she knew to be new and on her first or second day of driving without a trainer, would leave the scene of an accident.
LEARN MORE: METRO SCHOOL BUS SAFETY DATA
- FULTON: System checks drivers’ records monthly, but is it enough?
- DEKALB: Not using accident data puts students at risk
- GWINNETT: Poor record-keeping raises questions
“I was uncomfortable with a driver with that type of judgment,” Campbell said recently. “She looked about 25. I recognize that’s a legal age, but when you’re talking about that many young kids. Even though it was a minor accident, the way it was handled was a bit odd.”
The accident is not in Fulton’s records, though each school bus accident is supposed to be recorded and available for authorities to track and study so they can spot poor drivers and problems and fix them before they become a danger. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution asked for and analyzed school bus accident data from the state and metro Atlanta school districts, which raise questions about those safety procedures. There are gaps in the records and evidence that some district officials don’t enforce their own policies. There’s no evidence that district or state officials use the data at all.
That can put children at risk. 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.
The cost of ignoring safety warnings can be dire. In November six children were killed when a school bus overturned on a winding Chattanooga road. Authorities said Johnthony Walker was speeding and never used the brakes when trying to overcorrect as the bus veered off course. Walker faces multiple charges including vehicular homicide, reckless endangerment and reckless driving. An investigation found that parents had complained about Walker’s driving several times since the school year began in August, saying he was prone to speeding and abruptly stopping, knocking several students out of their seats.
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.
School districts have been under financial strain. State funding for student transportation has declined nearly a third since 2002, from nearly $180 million to $131 million in the proposed 2018 budget, according to the Georgia Budget & Policy Institute. Student enrollment increases during that period meant state transportation spending for each student dropped about 40 percent, from $122 to about $76 per student. Local school budgets were also strained during the Great Recession and are just now recovering.
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.
“Since learning that the accidents were not reported in the last two years, we started pulling weekly reports of what is reported to the state,” district officials said. “A bus accident report is now produced once per week to verify that we are reporting accidents.”
According to DeKalb County School District’s School Bus Operations guide, drivers can be recommended for termination after being cited for two accidents while driving a bus. But the district currently employs more than 60 drivers with more than two infractions for sideswiping and rear-ending other vehicles, among other things. One driver has had 12 accidents — eight of them deemed preventable — since 2013, according to state data. Roxanne Ivins’ record while driving a bus includes citations for following too closely and misjudging a clearance after rear-ending or side-swiping several vehicles over the years.
The district employs more than 800 drivers for more than a thousand routes driven daily to deliver 60,000 students to and from school.
District spokeswoman Eileen Houston-Stewart said the district recently instituted monthly driving record checks for all employees who drive as part of their jobs.
Clayton County’s driver policy says drivers can have no more than two moving violations, but 23 drivers had three or more moving violations since 2012, according to information provided by the district.
District officials said 16 of the drivers with multiple moving violations are still employed, including one with five at-fault accidents in a 16-month period. The district reported more than 300 bus accidents with at least 30 injuries to the state from 2012 through 2016.
The district buses nearly 26,000 of its more than 55,000 students to and from school, with 362 drivers for 357 bus routes.
While other school districts keep bus crash data on digital spreadsheets, Gwinnett County officials answered the AJC’s request for documents by copying and delivering paper accident reports — 700 of them.
Jorge Gomez, Gwinnett County Schools’ executive director of administration and policy, did not respond to a question about how the district uses the compiled information.
District spokeswoman Sloan Roach said drivers’ individual motor vehicle records are reviewed twice a year, and that employees are evaluated on what they do in the bus as well as in their personal car.
“It is extremely rare that a driver gets a citation while driving the bus, maybe 1 or 2 a year total unless they are cited for an accident while in the bus,” she said via email. “Most of the time the citations we see occur when they are driving their own vehicle.”
About a dozen bus drivers were cited for more than three accidents over the five-year reporting period, with the district reporting more than 700 accidents to the Georgia Department of Transportation from 2012 to 2016.
Fulton County’s bus accident data show seven drivers with three or more citations between 2012 and 2016. Of those, two no longer are employed by the district.
The district buses more than 79,000 of its more than 94,000 students to and from school, with 868 total drivers and more than 760 buses hitting the road daily.
The district performs monthly reviews of a bus driver’s motor vehicle record, spokeswoman Susan Hale said.
“We can and will recommend termination depending on number and more importantly, type of offenses (and) citations adjudicated within a 3-year period,” she said. “However, if citations are minor and far apart, we may not recommend termination.”
Cobb County’s open records clerk, Kelly Moore, said the district submits bus accident data to the Georgia Department of Education. But the district does not keep all the data in-house.
The database of records the AJC received from Cobb, the state’s second largest school district, is difficult to read because because only two fields, the driver’s name and accident date, are easily determined. The county database lacks critical information such as type of accident, whether the driver was cited and how many students were on the bus or injured.
District records report more than 1,800 accidents between 2012 and 2016 involving Cobb County school buses.
Atlanta Public Schools hasn’t kept accurate records for accidents it reports to the state. Records received from the district included only accidents from July 2015 to June 2016 and differed from the state database in the number of incidents, with none being recorded from 2012 to 2015. Officials say the district has complied with state requirements.
“Although a second copy for the (missing) years noted was not kept, the data was still uploaded,” APS Research Assistant Brigetta Perry said via email. “Measures have been put into place to ensure that a department copy is kept going forward.”
APS bus drivers are subject to a semiannual review of their driving records, district spokeswoman Kimberly Willis Green said. They also must not have convictions for certain Class I offenses — driving under the influence, possession of a controlled substance, assault, manslaughter or homicide arising out of the use of a motor vehicle — in the previous three years. District policy does not stipulate limits to the number of accidents a driver can have.
In the received data, two bus drivers received citations for two accidents in that school year. Both are still employed by the district.
Campbell, the Fulton County parent, inquired about the accident involving her son and said she was told the driver missed the entrance to the subdivision and and pulled into a nearby child care center parking lot to get turned around, where the bus damage took place.
A bus operations manager who later phoned her said the students should have remained on the bus to be checked by medical professionals.
“They said the bus driver would be retrained and put on another route,” Campbell said. “I worried about that because obviously her judgment and her skills were inadequate for the job.”
Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.
Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.