On November 21, 2016, a school bus loaded with children crashed in Chattanooga, Tennessee, killing at least five students and injuring many more. Authorities have called the Tennessee school bus crash one of the deadliest bus accidents in recent history.
The Hamilton County Department of Education confirmed to the media that there were 35 students from Woodmore Elementary School on the bus at the time of the accident, ranging from kindergarten to fifth grade. According to local law enforcement officials, the fatal school bus crash occurred at around 3:20 p.m. roughly a mile from the school on Talley Road, a narrow and winding two-lane street that is mostly lined with houses.
Witnesses reported that the bus driver, 24-year-old Johnthony Walker, had been speeding prior to the accident. Indeed, Walker lost control of the bus and swerved off the road to the right, where he collided with an elevated driveway and a mailbox.
He then swerved to the left and the bus overturned, eventually striking a telephone pole and a tree. The bus was the only vehicle involved in the wreck. Photos of the gruesome crash show the school bus toppled over on its side, wrapped around a tree with its roof caved in.
Tennessee School Bus Crash Updates
In an arrest affidavit released on Tuesday, authorities said Walker was driving well above the posted speed limit in the area, which is 30 miles-per-hour. According to the court filing, Mr. Walker was charged with five counts of vehicular manslaughter due to “the reckless nature” of his driving. The 24-year-old, who was arrested on Monday night, also faces charges of reckless endangerment and reckless driving, according to law enforcement officials.
Witnesses Recall the Horror of Chattanooga School Bus Accident
Local resident, Ed Wilson was in his living room when he and his wife were startled by the sound of the accident. He went outside and found the overturned school bus just 50 feet away. “I could tell right away it was bad, very bad,” Wilson told the Washington Post. He ran back into the house and called 911.
While he was on the phone, Wilson could hear the nightmarish sounds of children screaming and crying. A handful of students were able to extricate themselves from the wreckage, through a small exit door on the roof.
By the time emergency responders arrived at the scene of the Tennessee school bus crash, neighbors were offering help to some of the students. Others who were still trapped on the bus required immediate medical attention. The five students who lost their lives were pronounced dead at the scene. While their identities were not immediately made public, sources have indicated that three were in fourth grade, one was a kindergartener and the other was in first grade.
Twenty-three other children were rushed to area hospitals following the wreck, including six who were listed in critical condition. One day after the tragic crash, 12 children were still hospitalized.
Bus Driver Johnthony Walker
“There has been times where I’ve seen him going a little faster than he probably should be going.” – Craig Harris, a parent of two children aboard the Chattanooga school bus
Mr. Walker’s driving record has a couple of red flags. In September, he was involved in another school bus accident. According to the police report, Walker was approaching a blind curve and crossed over into oncoming traffic, where the bus collided with an SUV. No injuries were reported in that crash, as it was noted that no children were seated in the front rows of the school bus. Damage to both the bus and the SUV was listed as minor.
According to state commercial driver records, Walker’s license was previously suspended for a month in 2014 after he failed to show proof of insurance. Authorities have indicated that Walker doesn’t have a criminal record in Tennessee.
Durham School Services
Walker was employed by the Hamilton County School District’s bus service contractor, Warrenville, Illinois-based Durham School Services. According to media reports, Durham operates approximately 13,700 vehicles across the nation and employs nearly as many drivers.
Federal records show that Durham School Services vehicles have been involved in 346 accidents over a two-year span, which resulted in three deaths and 142 injuries. During the same period, the company was hit with 53 unsafe driving violations.
Durham School Services received a “satisfactory” safety rating from the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) in 2015.
Tennessee School Bus Crash Reawakens Concern Over School Bus Safety
One issue related to the Tennessee school bus crash that has been widely commented on among news outlets and people on social media is seat belts. Only six states in the U.S. require seat belts on large buses. Many states, including Tennessee, have failed to enact seat belt legislation over cost concerns.
Seat belt legislation was introduced in Tennessee two years ago after two students and a student aide were killed in a school bus accident in Knoxville. According to Tennessee State Representative Joanne Favors, the bill never made it out of committee.
Favors, who actually visited the site of the crash in Chattanooga and was visibly distressed by what she saw, believes it is time to enact seat belt legislation for school buses.
“I think it’s a bit asinine to not require that on school buses,” she said.
Children riding in a car with their parents are required to be strapped into a seat belt and are often protected by airbags and other safety mechanisms. Why is it that the same rules and regulations don’t apply to school buses?
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has previously argued that “large school buses are heavier and distribute crash forces differently than do passenger cars and light trucks. Because of these differences, the crash forces experienced by occupants of buses are much less than that experienced by occupants of passenger cars, light trucks, or vans.”
The same article says that children on large school buses are protected through “compartmentalization,” which requires that the interiors of school buses provide protection without “the need to buckle up.” But what happens when a school bus overturns, as it did in the Tennessee accident? Does the vehicle’s heavy mass distribute crash forces effectively enough to prevent young children from being violently thrown from their seats? In this case, the answer is no.
To their credit, the NHTSA has recently changed its tune by adopting a new federal policy position on the school bus seat belt safety issue, saying children on school buses should have access to seat belts. Though the agency hasn’t introduced any new school bus safety initiatives regarding seat belts and has instead insisted that further research is needed.
Tennessee School Bus Crash Updates
Johnthony Walker, the bus driver in the tragic school bus crash in Chattanooga, Tennessee, is guilty of vehicular homicide a jury found. The jury also found Walker guilty of various assault and endangerment charges in a trial that saw the prosecutor accuse Walker of speeding and using his cellphone while driving the bus. The Nov. 21, 2016, Chattanooga bus crash killed six students, which once again raised concerns about the lack of adequate safety measures regulating school buses and the recent causes of fatal school bus crashes across the country.
Officials charged Walker, 25, with 34 counts, including six counts of vehicular homicide, 17 counts of reckless aggravated assault, and seven counts of assault. Walker also faced charges of reckless endangerment, reckless driving and use of a cell phone while driving. His attorney argued that police ignored evidence that a second vehicle traveling towards the bus drifted into his lane, causing Walker to drive off the road.
NTSB Releases Tennessee Bus Accident Preliminary Report
January 18, 2017
The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has released its preliminary report on the Tennessee bus accident that left six students dead and 31 injured. Although the investigation is not complete, the preliminary report does set out some of the events on November 21, 2016, that led up to the devastating Chattanooga, Tennessee school bus crash. In the wake of the fatal bus accident, calls have been renewed for increased safety measures on school buses.
According to the NTSB’s report, the driver of the bus, Johnthony Walker, was not following the usual bus route and was driving along Talley Road in a section that has a speed limit of 30 miles per hour. Walker initially encountered a horizontal curve to the left, which has a posted speed of 25 miles per hour. The bus navigated that bend in the road, but Walker lost control of the bus as he attempted to drive through a second curve to the right. The bus then left the roadway and collided with a utility pole.