NBC 5, in some great reporting, recently broke a story about Dallas County school bus drivers and the ridiculous number of traffic citations they've received since the beginning of 2014. As a result, Dallas County Schools terminated 13 drivers and suspended an additional 229 drivers who cumulatively received 480 traffic tickets since January 1, 2014.
Most people don't give a second thought when they put their kids on a school bus. They assume that the drivers are qualified and will safely get their kids from the bus stop to school and back again. When roughly 10% of the school bus drivers employed by Dallas County are either fired or suspended, it shows that there is a serious problem within the schools' Transportation Department.
School Bus Accidents Kill More Children than School Shootings
75,000 children depend on Dallas County School buses for transportation every day of the school year. Some of the videos uncovered during Channel 5's investigation are truly disturbing. Unlike the rest of us, who stop when a bus is unloading children, some of the more egregious offending bus drivers felt that it was perfectly acceptable to ignore the law and pass buses while children were loading and unloading.
While firing and suspending irresponsible drivers is a good start, the Dallas County Schools Transportation Department has a long way to go to earn back the public's trust. Most parents will never willingly expose their children to dangerous conditions, even it means going through the inconvenience of driving their children to school themselves. Others simply have no choice and are left at the mercy of whatever level of service administrators care to supply.
All of this takes place against a back drop of children being killed and injured in school bus accidents. From 2003-2012 (The most recent data we have), according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), 174 school-aged children were killed in school bus crashes. This is on top of 176 adults who were also killed in school bus accidents. While 350 deaths over a 10 year period may not sound like much in a nation of 320 million, when juxtaposed with the recent news about Dallas County school buses, we can't help but wonder if everything is being done to make safely transporting our children the priority that it should be.
For comparisons sake, if you add up school shootings for grades K-12 from 1998-the present, 90 people have lost their lives in those events. Politicians love to point out the epidemic of school shootings, but the fact of the matter is that your child is at least twice as likely to die on the bus ride to school than in a school shooting. One tragedy garners national headlines and debates, and the other issue only pops up when a local news outfit decides to investigate.
Don't get me wrong, a tragedy, especially one involving children dying, is a tragedy. I'm not trying to play the "this shocking event is worse than that shocking event" game, but comparing the two gives a needed perspective on the problem of school bus deaths.
It is important to note that these figures only cover children that were killed in school bus accidents, the likelihood that many more children were injured, some of them seriously, is quite high.
School Bus Accidents and Personal Injury Law
When one of these tragedies does strike, the impulse for many parents is to seek a means to hold school bus operators accountable for their negligence. Given that many involved in these accidents are minors, they are owed a higher standard of care under than law than adults or even older children.
The problem that many of these families run into, especially in Texas, is that pursuing litigation against a negligent bus driver can be difficult and the amount of money available for compensating victims or their families is capped by the Texas Tort Claims Act. While not specifically mentioned in the statute, courts have determined that school districts and those who work on behalf of them, like school bus drivers are bound by the most stringent damages caps, $100,000 per victim and $300,000 per incident.
On top of that, potential litigants are subject to a notification requirement. They have to inform the government agency of their intent to pursue legal action within a specified time period, which varies from jurisdiction to jurisdiction.
That right, it doesn't matter how negligent a school bus driver is, if they kill a child, the most the government has to pay out in compensation is $100,000. Educators can rightly point out that a child's life is priceless, but under Texas law, it has a price if it's a school's negligence that claims that child's life and that price is a paltry $100,000.
One would think that the responsibility of transporting children would be enough for Dallas County Schools to place school bus drivers under strict scrutiny. However, the weight of their charge was not enough to motivate Dallas County Schools to properly supervise bus drivers, rather it took the public outcry resulting from an investigation for them to act. While people may say that the potential for costly lawsuits do not have a deterrent effect, we would beg to differ.
We've litigated against hundreds of trucking companies and even the worst of them do not employ as many drivers with questionable records as Dallas County Schools seems to. With trucking companies, in their desperation they may hire a few unqualified drivers (and those are almost always the ones who cause accidents), but the price of employing dozens of drivers who shouldn't be behind the wheel, and an additional couple hundred questionable drivers would be too much for any companey to sustain.
The reason for that cost is that, unlike school bus drivers, drivers of other large commercial vehicles can face tremendous liability for the children they kill and injure. They have a powerful incentive to ensure that they have safe drivers behind the wheel, an incentive sorely lacking for school districts in Texas.
I'm not saying that there are any reports that unqualified school bus drivers in Dallas County led to any deaths, but employing reckless drivers means that such deaths are not a matter of if, but when. Driver error is the biggest factor in most accidents, whether cars, buses, or trucks. A small minority of bad drivers account for the vast majority of accidents.
That's what makes this story so outrageous. Lax oversight and a lack of consequences put literally thousands of local children at risk. Our community dodged a bullet this time, but unless Dallas County Schools fundamentally overhauls its driver recruitment and retention system to implement more rigorous checks on driving records, it is only a matter of time until drivers who should not be behind the wheel are again entrusted with transporting our children back and forth to school.