Two vehicles postcrash. The yellow school bus is seen from the front left side and has a severely crushed front. The bus is still on the roadway. The white service truck is seen from the back and has run off the roadway onto adjacent gravel. (Source: Tennessee Highway Patrol).
Collision Between Service Vehicle and School Bus
On Tuesday, October 27, 2020, about 3:45 p.m. eastern daylight time, a 2018 Freightliner truck, configured as a service vehicle for a local utility company, was traveling north on State Route 58 (SR-58) in Decatur, Meigs County, Tennessee, at an estimated speed of about 52 mph. At the same time, a 2013 Thomas Built transit-style school bus was traveling southbound on SR-58, carrying 33 students home from school. The bus was traveling at a recorded speed of 46 mph immediately prior to impact. The posted speed limit was 55 mph.
In the area of the crash, the highway has one lane in each direction separated by a double yellow centerline. Adjacent to the northbound travel lane is a paved shoulder about 1 foot wide with milled rumble stripes. Next to the northbound paved shoulder was an earthen v-ditch.
The truck driver reported that he was looking in his side rear-vision mirrors when the truck’s right-side wheels departed the roadway and entered the v-ditch. When the truck re-entered the roadway, the truck yawed counterclockwise, crossed into the southbound lane and was almost perpendicular to the roadway. The bus collided with the right side of the truck.
The 53-year-old school bus driver and a 7-year-old passenger seated directly behind the bus driver were fatally injured. Four other school bus passengers sustained serious injuries, 10 sustained minor injuries, and 18 were uninjured or their injury level was unknown. The truck driver was also uninjured.
What We Found
We found that lane departure warning systems and lane-keeping assist systems can prevent many lane and road departure crashes, and may have averted this crash. Also, the truck driver’s ability to return to the roadway was affected negatively by the non-recoverable and critical foreslopes of the earthen v-ditch (design aspects of the slope away from the roadway from which drivers may be unable to recover their vehicles) and the drop-off edge of the paved shoulder. Since the crash, the Tennessee Department of Transportation has made improvements to SR-58 in the area of the collision that address these deficiencies.
We also found that several of the school bus passengers were not seated properly in their seats, which increased their risk of injury. Lap/shoulder belts would have mitigated the forward inertial movement of the unbelted passengers on the school bus, keeping them within the protecting seating compartment and reducing their risk of injury. Onboard video recorder information can be used to identify risky student behaviors such as out-of-position seating positions to proactively correct these positions and maximize occupant protection for compartmentalized passengers.
We determined that the probable cause of the Decatur, Tennessee, crash was the service truck driver’s inattention to the forward roadway due to his looking at a sheriff’s vehicle behind him, which resulted in his failure to keep the truck on the roadway. Contributing to the cause of the crash were non-recoverable and critical foreslopes and the pavement edge drop-off along the state highway, which prevented the truck driver from safely returning the truck to the roadway in a controlled manner. Contributing to the severity of the crash was the lack of passenger lap/shoulder belts on the school bus and the unsafe seating positions by some of the students.
What We Recommended
As a result of this investigation, we issued one new recommendation and we reiterated four recommendations. We issued a recommendation to the National Association for Pupil Transportation, the National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services, and the National School Transportation Association to inform their members to periodically review onboard video event recorder information to ensure that students engage in safe transportation behaviors on school buses, including sitting properly and wearing seat belts, when available, and that the members use this information to improve the bus safety training provided to drivers, students, and parents.
We reiterated Safety Recommendations H-21-1 and H-22-3 to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) to require lane departure prevention systems on new vehicles with gross vehicle weight ratings greater than 10,000 pounds, and to require all buses and trucks over 10,000 pounds gross vehicle weight rating to be equipped with onboard video event recorders. We reiterated Safety Recommendation H-18-9 to Florida, Louisiana, and New York to amend their statutes to require lap/shoulder belts for all passenger seating positions in new large school buses. We also reiterated Safety Recommendation H-18-10 to the states, commonwealths, and the District of Columbia that do not currently require lap/shoulder belts on new school buses to enact legislation that requires new large school buses to be equipped with passenger lap/shoulder belts.