After spike in crashes, Highway Patrol targets school bus safety (with video)

After spike in crashes, Highway Patrol targets school bus safety (with video)

March 9th, 2013 by Beth Burger in Local Regional News

Tennessee State Trooper Wade Clepper checks seats on a Hamilton County school bus during a surprise inspection Friday at Soddy-Daisy High School. Troopers conduct periodic surprise inspections on school buses in addition to annual scheduled inspections to help insure compliance with safety and mechanical standards.

Photo by Doug Strickland/Times Free Press.

An increase in school bus-related crashes prompted the Tennessee Highway Patrol to beef up safety inspections and crack down on motorists.

2012 accidents

* Bradley County 15

* Hamilton County 44

* Coffee County 6

2011 accidents

* Bradley County 8

* Hamilton County 36

* Coffee County 3

Source: Tennessee Highway Patrol

With school bus-related crashes on the rise, Tennessee Highway Patrol troopers are ramping up safety inspections and cracking down on motorists driving aggressively near school bus stops.

Troopers said they hope beefed up inspections and enforcement will boost awareness among motorists and school bus operators and curtail accidents involving school buses.

"I think there's a lot of distracted driving," said Tennessee Highway Patrol Lt. John Harmon. "Everybody's in a hurry, and the last thing anybody wants to do is be behind a school bus when they are going to work. They are doing everything they can to get around a school bus."

In the 12-county Chattanooga trooper district, there were 67 crashes involving school buses in 2011. In 2012, the number of school bus-related crashes jumped to 81. School bus accidents also increased in Bradley and Coffee counties.

"The most precious commodity hauled is ... children," he said. "We're trying to get the message out to slow down around those school buses."

Across the state in 2011, there were four fatal crashes involving school buses -- none in Chattanooga. Statewide, there were five fatal crashes involving school buses in 2012 -- including one in Bradley County.

To step up enforcement, patrol troopers will ride on school buses during their routes to and from schools and jot down license tag numbers of motorists who fail to stop when required. They also will sit in unmarked patrol cars to nab violators or show up unannounced at schools or bus barns to inspect buses.

Trooper Wade Clepper ran several buses -- and their drivers -- through an inspection early Friday morning at Soddy-Daisy High School. Clepper inspects school buses full time.

"Hit the brakes," he told bus owner and operator Lawrence Varner, who pumped the brakes as intervals of air pressure sounded. "Rock your steering wheel."

Varner moved the steering wheel back and forth, then waited as Clepper rolled underneath the bus. His verdict? Clepper's bus was put out of service.

"You've got one tire. Inside on the right side," Clepper said, documenting low tread.

"I'll go home and change it," says Varner who keeps six tires at his home at all times.

Varner's bus was one of five inspected Friday.

"It don't bother me. I try to keep my bus in good running shape," said Varner, who's been driving a school bus for nearly 30 years and whom children call by his CB handle, "Rabbitt." "I knew that tire was getting down there."

In February, troopers conducted 14 ridealongs and 14 spot checks in Bradley County. Out of those checks, nine buses were placed out of service.

Districtwide, troopers conduct 1,200 bus inspections each year. In Hamilton County, about 300 buses are inspected.

Until September, a single trooper was responsible for checking each bus.

"I used to dream in yellow I was doing so many inspections," said Sgt. Alan Bailey.