I sit across from AJC education reporters Marlon Walker and Eric Stirgus so I witnessed their efforts to collect school bus safety data. Their investigation led to an excellent story in the Sunday AJC that revealed Metro Atlanta school buses have been involved in more than 700 accidents this year, which breaks down to about two a day.
The tally may be higher as Walker and Stirgus discovered not every district reports bus crashes. Georgia school districts are required to report every accident within 45 days to the Georgia Department of Education.
“But some districts report crashes sparingly — if at all — according to data the state released. The DeKalb County School District did not report any crashes in 2014 and only two in 2015, but reported 206 crashes from July 21 through November this year, more than any school district in Georgia,” according to the story.
Here is an excerpt from their piece:
As last month’s fatal crash in Chattanooga, Tenn., lingers on the mind of parents across the country, questions arise about whether Georgia school districts — and state education leaders — are doing enough to keep children safe to and from school.
Through November, 302 students and drivers were injured in school bus accidents in Georgia, according to state data. Most of the injuries were minor. The total is just three less than all of 2015, and surpasses the 231 injured in 2014.
Bus drivers were charged in about one in three crashes, according to the state’s data. The most frequent causes for the wrecks were drivers misjudging clearance, backing up the school bus improperly or following another vehicle too closely.
Concern about school bus safety grew after six Chattanooga elementary school children were killed days before Thanksgiving when a bus driver said he lost control of the vehicle and it flipped, crashing into a utility pole and a tree. Police charged the driver, Johnthony Walker, 24, with vehicular homicide, saying he drove “well above the posted speed limit of 30 mph.”
Georgia Department of Education spokesman Matt Cardoza said officials have been in touch with several school districts that failed to submit complete bus data. Cardoza said the state uses the data to monitor districts and provide training where there are issues.
In metro Atlanta, APS, Clayton and Gwinnett bus crash data appears consistent over the three-year reporting period provided to the AJC.
An AJC analysis of the state’s data shows bus crashes occur more frequently, as measured by crashes per pupil, in smaller Georgia districts, such as Troup and Wayne county schools. However, metro Atlanta districts such as Fayette and DeKalb were among the top ten this year in bus crashes per pupil.
Anyone injured in a school bus crash potentially gets little financial relief. State law allows school districts to determine how much insurance to carry for students injured on a school bus. People in other vehicles involved in a school bus crash can sue the driver, but not the school district under state law.
“I think school districts should be playing by the same rules as counties and cities,” said Darl Champion Jr., an Atlanta-based attorney who has discussed the issue with some state lawmakers. “What can be more important than making sure if a child gets hurt, they can be protected?”