On Monday, November 21, 2016, about 3:20 p.m. (eastern daylighttime), a 2008 Thomas Built Buses 84-passenger school bus was traveling south in the 300 block of Talley Road, in Chattanooga, Tennessee, when it departed the roadway, rolled onto its right side, and struck a tree The school bus, operated by Durham School Services, under contract to the Hamilton County Department of Education (HCDE), was occupied by the 24-year-old driver and 37 students.
The school bus was transporting 37 students from Woodmore Elementary School to their drop-off locations. According to the vehicle’s Zonar global positioning system (GPS) information, the bus left the school parking lot at 3:13:24 p.m.36 The 24-year-old bus driver departed the school 13 minutes late. He then deviated from his scheduled route and headed south on Talley Road. The driver answered a cell phone call at 3:17:20 p.m. He had not yet dropped off any students—and the cell phone call was still active—when he lost control of the bus and departed the roadway.
Six school bus passengers died in the crash, six were seriously injured, and 20 received minor injuries. Five passengers and the driver were uninjured.
In November 2016, the NTSB began the investigation of two crashes involving school buses. Each crash was initiated when the driver lost control of the bus. In the November 1 crash in Baltimore, Maryland, the driver was epileptic and suffered a seizure. In the November 21 crash in Chattanooga, Tennessee, the driver was speeding while using a cell phone and ran off the road. In both cases, the school bus operators were private for-hire motor carriers. Although the specific safety issues differed, the crashes shared one common factor: poor driver oversight by both the school districts and the contracted motor carriers, which resulted in unsafe operation of the school buses. Between the two crashes, 12 people died and 37 were injured.
We determined that the probable cause of the Chattanooga, Tennessee, crash was the school bus driver’s excessive speed and cell phone use, which led to the loss of vehicle control; Durham School Services’ failure to provide adequate bus driver oversight, allowing an inexperienced driver to operate a commercial vehicle with escalating risky driving behaviors that it knew, or should have known, could lead to the unsafe operation of the school bus; and the Hamilton County Department of Education’s lack of followup to ensure that Durham had addressed a known driver safety issue. Contributing to the severity of the crash was the lack of passenger lap/shoulder belts on the school bus.
The crash investigations focused on the following safety issues: school districts’ lack of oversight of student transportation providers; poor management of unsafe school bus drivers by the motor carriers and school districts; medically unfit school bus drivers; commercial driver license fraud; occupant protection in large school buses; and the benefits of electronic stability control, automatic emergency braking, and event data recorders. The NTSB made safety recommendations to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration; the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA); the states of Florida, Louisiana, New Jersey, and New York; 42 states, the District of Columbia, and the territory of Puerto Rico—which lack requirements for lap/shoulder belts on large school buses; the state of Maryland; the Maryland Department of Education; the Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration; five school bus transportation associations; National Express LLC; seven school bus manufacturers; five electronic health record companies; and Concentra, Inc. The report also reiterates four recommendations to NHTSA and reclassifies a recommendation to the Baltimore City Public Schools.