I-TEAM: Tracking potential changes to Ohio school busses after Miami Valley tragedy

DAYTON — Ohio’s School Bus Safety Taskforce wrapped up its latest public meeting Thursday afternoon in Columbus.

Ohio Governor Mike DeWine broke the news of the creation of the working group because News Center 7 asked him about it three days after 11-year-old Aiden Clark died in a school bus crash outside Springfield on the first day of school.

An unlicensed driver crossed the center line on State Route 41 and his van collided with a Northwestern Local Schools bus that Clark was riding. The impact flipped the bus onto its top. Clark died in the crash and more than 20 of his classmates were taken to local hospitals.

The at-fault driver is facing felony charges of involuntary manslaughter and vehicular homicide in connection with the crash. His criminal case is currently pending in Clark County Common Pleas Court.

Following the tragedy, many people were outraged and called for change.

The News Center 7 I-Team looked into what the task force is considering to make Ohio children safer on school busses.

The I-Team’s lead investigative reporter, John Bedell, has talked to parents and grandparents in the Miami Valley about what they think the task force should pay attention to. “I always thought (school busses) should have seatbelts myself,” Michael Magel, from Troy, said. Magel said he has five school-aged grandchildren.

Others have told the I-Team they think lighting on school busses is important. “Especially when you consider there are times of day when they’re driving kids and it’s dark,” Sarla Matsumura from Beavercreek said.

Over two months of work, the task force has reviewed state crash data maintained by the Ohio Department of Public Safety that shows wrecks involving school busses (6,089) represent 0.4% of all crashes in the state (1,509,716) over the last five and a half years (from January 1, 2018, through July 27, 2023.)

“School busses are … still very safe on Ohio’s roadways,” Sgt. Trevor Jasper with the Ohio State Highway Patrol told the task force while presenting the OSHP crash data to the working group during its September 25 public meeting in Columbus.

The task force has taken a holistic look at school bus safety – seeing whether there’s anything that can be done to make the vehicles, and our children who ride them, safer.

During the group’s second of five meetings – the Deputy Director for the National Transportation Safety Board’s (NTSB) Office of Highway Safety, Dr. Kristin Poland, gave a presentation to the panel about seatbelts on school busses.

In November 2022, the NTSB renewed its recommendation that states should require all large new school busses to have seat belts. Currently, Ohio is one of 42 states that does not require seat belts on school busses.

As the I-Team has previously reported, a Miami Valley state lawmaker, State Rep. Bernie Willis, (R) – Springfield, has introduced a bill at the Ohio Statehouse in Columbus that would require seatbelts be installed on all school busses in the state within five years of becoming law.

But State Rep. Willis told the I-Team’s lead investigative reporter, John Bedell, in an interview earlier this week that what happens to his legislative plan depends entirely on the recommendations the state’s school bus safety task force releases in December. “I would say all the way up to the point where if the task force said, ‘everything’s fine, we don’t need to do anything,’ we’re going to accept their expert opinion on that and that bill would go away,” Willis said.

During some meetings, task force members have asked the experts presenting whether seatbelts might hurt children in a crash by holding them in place near the point of impact.

“You’re always at risk if you’re in the intrusion zone,” answered Dr. Kristin Poland from the NTSB during a September 25 meeting. Poland is the Deputy Director of the NTSB’s Office of Highway Safety. “That’s what’s very challenging. In the crashes we’ve investigated, and we’ve looked at that real-world outcome, we’ve seen a benefit for the restraint system,” she said.

Another person asked Dr. Poland if children would be able to unbuckle themselves quickly in case of an emergency. “The button depression is designed to be very easily done by the children that ride on it,” Poland answered. “So, it’s not challenging for them to unbuckle themselves.”

Former Clark County Prosecuting Attorney, and current Ohio Department of Public Safety Director Andy Wilson is leading the task force. He asked Poland, “In all of your studies, have you ever come across any situations where the presence of seatbelts impeded first responders or others from being able to get these kids out in case of a fire or water intrusion?” Poland answered: “No.”

They’ve also talked about possibly adding crash avoidance technology like electronic stability control or automatic emergency braking systems to Ohio school busses.

“The accidents we look at here in Ohio are typically passenger cars going left of center, t-boning our busses and other things,” Carolyn Everidge-Frey with the Ohio Department of Education and Workforce said at the September 25 meeting. “It seems like what we need is more of that collision avoidance and that automatic braking.”

The working group has also reviewed driver licensing, training, and certification. And they’ve looked at the need for better visibility around busses.

“Until the last three or four years the focus has now kind of shifted to where most of the accidents and fatalities are outside the realm of the bus,” Thomas Built Busses State Specifications Coordinator, Ricky Stanley, told the working group during a presentation at a September meeting. “So, increasing the visibility in that area to all of those parties is probably the biggest key component that we need to be aware of.”

As the I-Team has previously reported, there’s a Miami Valley connection here. Greenville City Schools’ bus mechanic is on the task force. News Center 7 went to Greenville recently to talk to him about the work group’s progress.

“We’ve kind of covered everything dealing with school busses, not just seatbelts but safety all around the bus,” Greenville City Schools Transportation Mechanic Rob Widener told the I-Team.

Widener has been a mechanic for more than 40 years. He’s also the president of the Ohio School Bus Mechanics Association and has been a firefighter for 35 years. Widener says the task force has kept an open mind about what they’ve heard including whether Ohio should change its seat belt requirements for school busses.

“We’ve had both presentations for and against (requiring seat belts on school busses) and nobody’s really said anything to the other for or against yet,” Widener said. “And we’ve not sat down to make all of our final recommendations just yet.”

After the tragedy in the Miami Valley, parents and grandparents have told the I-Team they appreciate the state’s review. “Anything for the safety of the children, absolutely,” Judy Magel from Troy said. “That’s our future. They’re it.”

The task force has one public meeting left on December 1. After that, the next step will be for the group to issue recommendations to Governor DeWine and state lawmakers. That’s due by the end of the year.

The I-Team will continue following the group’s work and will bring you updates as we get them.

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