Updated on: 1/7/2019
A makeshift memorial at the childrens' school after the crash. Image source: Wavy News
Five elementary school children died when the bus that they were riding left the roadway and crashed into a tree on Monday afternoon in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Twenty-three more were taken to local hospitals for treatment of their injuries; six were listed in critical condition on Tuesday afternoon. A total of 35 elementary school students were riding the bus at the time of the crash. The bus ended up on its side, with its roof collapsed by the tree.
According to police, the driver of the bus, 24-year-old Johnthony Walker, was travelling over the posted speed limit of 30 miles per hour at the time of the crash. He has been jailed on charges including vehicular homicide, reckless driving, and reckless endangerment. His bail has been set at $107,500, and he will appear in court on November 29th. Police do not believe that any other vehicles were involved in the crash.
Emergency responders at the scene of the crash. Image source: USA Today
Parents raised concerns about bus company’s disregard for safety
This is not Johnthony Walker’s first accident at work. Just two months ago, he sideswiped a Kia Soul while crossing into oncoming traffic. He was driving a school bus at that time, and there were children in the back. Although Walker was cited for failure to yield, he was allowed to keep his job, and it is not clear whether his employer took any disciplinary action.
Walker was employed by Durham School Services, a bus service provider with a checkered history of safety violations. Buses operated by Durham School Services have been involved in a total of 346 crashes in the last two years. During that time frame, 142 of those crashes caused injuries, and three involved fatalities. The company owns more than 13,000 vehicles, and has contracts to operate school buses in many states. The company’s buses transport more than 1 million American students every school day. Investigators have discovered that some of Durham’s employees did not have appropriate driver’s licenses to perform operate the vehicles that they were working with.
Jasmine Mateen, the mother of one of the children who died in the crash, told reporters that she first began complaining about Walker’s unsafe driving in August. She described incidents of Walker slamming the brakes of the bus on purpose, causing the students to fall forward and hit their heads on the backs of the seats in front of them. She contacted school officials, the Board of Education, and Durham School Services about her concerns. The principal of her children’s school apparently read a letter she had written aloud to Walker, but Walker showed no remorse about his behavior, and no other disciplinary action was apparently taken.
The crash has renewed a nation-wide debate about whether school buses should be equipped with seatbelts. Currently, school districts in most states are allowed to set their own rules regarding seat belt availability and use, and few require all school buses to have restraining belts. Some safety advocates believe that seat belts could prevent fatalities in high-speed accidents, while others argue that young children might not use the belts properly or might not be able to evacuate the bus quickly if they were strapped in.