Live 5 Investigates: Bus drivers, motorists share fault in accidents

CHARLESTON, SC (WCSC) - In the Tricounty alone, more than 66,000 kids ride a school bus to school each day.

After a deadly school bus crash in Tennessee shocked the country this November, Live 5 News dived into the data to reveal what's happening to school buses here on Lowcountry roads.

"With my kids on the bus, I'm actually leaving their lives in your hands. Even if it is for a few minutes," West Ashley parent Anthony Cordell said while waiting at a local bus stop.

"Everyone is rushing," Cordell said, adding he likes his kids' current bus driver but rush hour and busy roads still prompt worry.

"They could be texting, not paying attention. It could be an accident, it could be a fender bender, but it's still an accident," Cordell said.

Under the Freedom of Information Act, Live 5 News requested collision and incident reports involving school buses from the S.C. Department of Education for the years 2013-2016 in Berkeley, Charleston, Colleton, Dorchester, Georgetown and Williamsburg counties.

Our team received reports via email in January, reviewing nearly 400 accidents and minor incidents and narrowing down reports to more than 350 significant accidents involving school buses.

To focus our reporting, we discarded minor incidents, such as when buses backed into mailboxes or deer caused an accident.

Once refined, Live 5 News compiled report data into an excel database.

Our analysis revealed 43 percent of accidents were caused by other drivers; 41 percent were caused by bus drivers; 3 percent of reports showed both drivers were at fault; and in 13 percent of crashes neither driver could be blamed or alternately, paperwork was incomplete.

Live 5 News also requested school bus transportation records from the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration.

A spokesperson confirmed that data is currently backlogged six to eight months and still pending Live 5 News' review.

Incident reports must be submitted within 24 hours of an incident occurring, according to a S.C. Dept. of Education spokesperson,.

The reports are filled out by the district transportation director or bus shop supervisor in consultation with SC Highway Patrol and submitted via email.

According to a S.C. Dept. of Education spokesperson, the incident reports are housed in an online database. While the database does have some search capabilities, the department is in the process of purchasing a new, more streamlined system that would increase ability to pull reports.

According to Dept. of Education reports, other drivers most commonly caused accidents by failing to yield, driving left of center or improperly passing.

While reviewing reports, Live 5 News also found more than twenty accidents where a car rear-ended a bus, yet the form provided to districts does not allow for that factor to be recorded as such.

Paul R. Cobbs, Dir. of Transportation with Dorchester District 4, has worked with student transportation for more than 20 years.

"They're getting off of work," Cobbs said of accidents caused by other drivers. "'Ah, I'm so sick of this bus, here it is again, so I'm gonna try to go around it.'"

"Then, they'll get careless and that's when something happens," Cobbs said.

"Most accidents happen when the bus driver is distracted," Bettye Prioleau said, "when the children are out of their seats."

A concerned grandmother and former Charleston County School bus driver, Prioleau previously managed some of the districts' bus routes and knows the weight of driving the Tricounty's most precious cargo.

She said providing a monitor for each bus would help improve overall safety for its young passengers.

"You really have to have experience to be able to concentrate through that noise. A new driver cannot do that," Prioleau said. "We shouldn't be driving so closely behind the bus but oftentimes it's the sudden stop of that driver, because something caused that driver to slam on breaks. The first response is to slam on buses, and that can cause a jam up. It happened to me when I first started driving. "

According to Dept. of Education records, bus drivers three most common faults for causing a collision include misjudging the distance, backing into somebody or "other," a category which can encompass factors such as inattentive driving to student behavior.

In its standard bus driver accident policy, the S.C. Department of Education requires districts alcohol and drug screen drivers after an accident if the driver is issued a ticket; a vehicle must be towed from the scene; if someone must be transported to the hospital injuries or in the case of a death. State policy also requires all school bus drivers pass a criminal background check when hired and must have a commercial driving license.

In addition to Dorchester District 4, Live 5 News reached out to each school district for further information and an interview regarding school bus safety,
specifically accidents.

Stephan Shope, Dir. of Transportation for Dorchester District 2, said the district maintains a file for "each accident/incident that includes police reports and any other relevant documentation of the incident."

"There is no threshold for disciplinary action, and, yes, it is a subjective process based on the severity of the incident, causal factors, fault vs no-fault, etc.," Shope said in an email.

According to a Charleston County School District spokesperson, "Inattention and impatience are the two main issues regarding vehicles collisions with school buses. Too many of the driving public are paying attention to their phones, or other traditional attention sapping activities: eating, playing with the radio, putting on makeup, or reading."

Charleston County School District also contracts with bus operator and private company, Durham School Services, to transport district students.

Durham declined our request for an interview despite multiple attempts.

"Durham is responsible for hiring, training and disciplining drivers," the Charleston County School District spokesperson said. "CCSD does have a clause
in our contract, that allows up to ban a driver from driving CCSD routes. CCSD does meet with Durham and State DOE regularly to discuss any recurring issues or causes regarding accidents. We follow Federal guidelines on post accident testing."

Terry T. Dingle, Interim Director of Transportation, for Colleton County School District said "Depending on the incident, drivers are required to be tested after an accident or series of accidents or incidents in a given time period. The former does tend to be at our discretion depending on the level of incident or severity."

Williamsburg and Georgetown counties have not responded to date.

Department of Education school bus collision reports for 2013-2016 in Berkeley, Charleston, Colleton, Dorchester, Georgetown and Williamsburg counties:

Letter to districts regarding bus safety project:

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