Driver holding joint on steering wheel

New Braunfels Church Bus Crash Raises Awareness About Drugged Driving

The daughter of one of the 13 people killed in a horrific church bus crash in New Braunfels, Texas is raising awareness about the dangers of drugged driving after officials discovered that the 20-year-old driver who hit the bus was under the influence of several prescriptions drugs and marijuana at the time. Drugged driving is reportedly surpassing alcohol in its link to dangerous and fatal accidents. The accident also raises the important issue of bus safety and ensuring passengers on buses are protected in the case of fatal accidents.

13 Were Killed in the Uvalde County Bus Crash

The last time Jessica Melott saw her mother, Rhonda Allen, a retired hospice nurse, was in the parking lot as Allen prepared to leave on a trip with 13 people from her church, the New Braunfels First Baptist Church, for a three-day retreat a little more than a hundred miles away. Melott told Allen to enjoy her trip and turned her focus to dropping her daughter off at school.

On the evening of Wednesday, March 29, 2017, that Melott got the news that her mother and all but one person aboard the bus died. Melott, speaking on August 15, 2017, in Austin, Texas, told of her mother’s zest for life and passion for her grandchildren.

“Besides her relationship with Jesus, her kids and my five daughters, her only grandchildren, were what brought her the most joy,” said Melott. “I loved reading any news stories that would put something about her, and they pulled stuff from Facebook because she put ‘I love my life.’ And that’s really how my mom lived.”

That love of life ended when Allen, at 61-years-old, died in the bus crash in Uvalde County.

What Drugs Did the Driver Take Before Causing the New Braunfels Church Bus Crash?

Among the medications 20-year-old Jack Young, driver of the Dodge pickup truck that crashed head-on into the bus took were:

  • Ambien
  • Lexapro
  • Clonazepam

Young also had a “THC level greater than five,” according to Melott (tests to measure the level of a driver’s impairment from marijuana are much less conclusive than those that measure alcohol). Young also told investigators that he was texting at the time of the bus crash, a common safety concern for drivers.

Witnesses to the crash captured video footage of Young on the road in the 14 minutes before the crash itself. Among the concerning issues the NTSB ascertained from that footage were that Young:

  • Crossed over the white line at the edge of the road 37 times,
  • Veered all the way into the grass roadside at least five times, and
  • Crossed over the double yellow solid centerline into the opposite lane a staggering 19 times.

Young even drove completely on the wrong side of the roadway for a time before the crash.

A grand jury indicted Young on multiple counts on June 29, 2017, three months after the deadly crash. He faces 13 two-count indictments on charges of intoxication manslaughter and manslaughter, and one two-count indictment of intoxication assault and aggravated assault with a deadly weapon causing serious bodily injury. Young’s bail was set at $380,000.

Texas Community Fights against Drugged Driving

A Texas AAA “Impaired Driving Policy Summit” in Austin presented the platform for Melott to talk about her mother and the accident that took her life. Officers in both law enforcement and traffic safety, as well as a range of criminal justice professionals, attended the summit.

Melott touched on what she hopes to gain by going forward with sharing her story.

“I hope I am able to speak out against drugged driving,” she said. “I hope they will see it’s real people that are affected when those who get behind the wheel and they’re impaired. They’re not just potentially hurting themselves but they’re hurting many others.”

Studies Find Drugged Driving on the Rise and Surpassing Drunk Driving

The Texas AAA referenced data at the summit from their organization and others that indicate drugged driving is an increasing threat to America’s roadways. A National Highway Transportation Association study from 2013-2014 found that in the seven years prior, alcohol levels in drivers were down 30 percent, while illicit drug use in drivers was up 25 percent.

Recent data from AAA shows that although 66 percent of people consider driving under the influence of alcohol a very serious threat, only 56 percent of people believe driving under the influence of illegal drugs serious threat. A measly 28 percent of drivers consider driving under the influence of prescription drugs a very serious threat.

This is a sharp contrast to studies that suggest that certain antidepressants can increase the risk of a crash by up to 41 percent, and that, of all fatal crashes involving drugged drivers, prescription drugs are the most common.

Keeping Bus Passengers Safe

The tragedy also highlights the risks involved in bus travel and serves as yet another reminder of the importance of keeping passengers on buses safe. According to reports, while most of the bus occupants were wearing seatbelts, the rear passenger seats had lap-only belts, not three-point seatbelts.

A report from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration states that the most effective way to prevent serious injuries during a bus crash is to have a three-point seatbelt, which involves a lap belt and a shoulder belt.

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