Friday, July 3, 2020
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Chattanooga school bus crash kills 5

The driver of a school bus that crashed and killed at least five students yesterday in Chattanooga, Tennessee, has been arrested on charges of vehicular manslaughter, CNN reports.

The names of the students killed were not immediately released, but interim Superintendent Kirk Kelly of the Hamilton County Department of Education said three of the children were in fourth grade, one was in first grade, and the other was a kindergartner. Four of them were girls.

Non-fatal injuries were sustained by several other students in the crash. Six of them were still in intensive care on Tuesday.

Citing an arrest affidavit, the Associated Press reports that the 24-year-old driver, Johnthony Walker, was driving “at a high rate of speed, well above the posted speed limit of 30 mph.” The investigation will continue, but several facts have already been confirmed:

  • Mr Walker received his commercial driver’s license in April (CNN).
  • He was involved in a minor accident in September (ABC News).
  • A parent complained about him previously (NBC News).
  • He lost control of the bus and swerved off the narrow roadway (New York Times).
  • The bus was carrying 37 students, who boarded at Woodmore Elementary School.
  • It hadn’t let any students off when the crash occurred.
  • No other vehicles were involved in the crash.
  • The bus landed on its side.
  • It also struck a mailbox, an elevated driveway, a tree, and a telephone pole.

Tennessee law does not require school buses to have safety belts, and none were present on this bus. However, CNN quoted National Transportation Safety Board Chairman Christopher A Hart as saying that it would take more than seat belts to have prevented tragedies like this one. The NTSB will be looking into ways the severity of the harm caused to students in rollover crashes might be reduced in the future.

Traffic fatalities are rare in school buses, though. A report in May of this year from the National Traffic Highway Safety Administration found that occupants of the school bus weren’t usually the ones killed in the accidents that did occur:

From 2005 to 2014, there were 1,332 people killed in school-transportation-related crashes—an average of 133 fatalities per year. Occupants of school transportation vehicles accounted for 8 percent of the fatalities, and nonoccupants (pedestrians, bicyclists, etc.) accounted for 21 percent of the fatalities. Most (71%) of the people who lost their lives in these crashes were occupants of other vehicles involved.

The owner of the bus, Durham School Services, which holds a contract to bus thousands of Hamilton County students each day, is based in Warrenville, Illinois, in Chicago’s far-western suburbs (unconfirmed eyewitness account). The company issued a statement:

Our entire team at Durham School Services is devastated by the accident yesterday that tragically claimed the lives of Chattanooga students. We are working with the Chattanooga Police Department and Hamilton County School District to investigate. We also have additional team members arriving in Chattanooga today to provide support. We have offered to provide counseling to students and families of Hamilton County, as well as our employees. We will provide all further updates in coordination with the Chattanooga Police Department and the District.

Community mourns

“The accident resulted in many devastated families,” the school wrote on its website.

“Immediately, Chattanoogans began to reach out to offer help and support. We know the families impacted the most by this tragedy will need our assistance in the days, weeks, and months to come. From immediate medical bills to long-term care, many of our Woodmore families will need both financial assistance and community support.”

The Woodmore Fund was created in partnership with United Way of Greater Chattanooga, Community Foundation of Greater Chattanooga, and other community partners in an effort to support both the short-term and long-term needs of these families.

Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.

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