Cooper: Woodmore bus crash offered lessons, realities

A man visits a memorial of teddy bears, balloons and other mementos placed at the site of a fatal school bus crash on Talley Road last November.

A year ago today, a group of Woodmore Elementary School students left their homes for school during a week when students, teachers and principals would be counting down the days until a five-day Thanksgiving break. By the time the day was over, six of those students would be dead and more than 30 injured in the crash of Bus 366 that allegedly involved excessive speed on Talley Road in North Brainerd.

Nothing will ever replace the lives lost that day, or heal the hurt the families feel, but changes, understanding and reality often follow such horrific tragedies.

We believe it certainly did in this case. Here are a few examples:

» The concept of seat belts on buses is debatable: On the surface, it should follow that seat belts on buses - either lap belts or three-point harnesses - would save lives the same way they do on cars.

Seat belts are federally required on buses that weigh less than 10,000 pounds but not on the larger, yellow school buses like the one involving the Woodmore students. Studies show school bus transportation, in general, is a very safe method of travel. Even without the belts, the buses protect students in crashes through "compartmentalization," a structural set-up in which the high seat-backs and the close spacing of those seats offer safety in the event of a crash.

Experts also fear students wouldn't keep their seat belts fastened, bus drivers couldn't monitor whether students kept them fastened and students may not know how to release them in the event of an emergency.

» Seat belts on buses are expensive: Most studies say seat belts add $7,000 to $10,000 to the cost of an $80,000 to $120,000 school bus (and more to retrofit them). The early fiscal analysis of a General Assembly bill requiring seat belts on Tennessee school buses, introduced by state Rep. JoAnne Favors, in whose legislative district the crash occurred, showed a cost to the state of an estimated $58.7 million and to local governments $423.4 million.

Though Favors and others worked to lower the fiscal note, the bill was left in committee at the end of the 2017 legislative session.

Governments and school bus owners shouldn't look at the cost of the belts as a lump sum, though, according to an article in an American Bar Association publication. Instead, they should look at the cost as 10 cents per day per seat over the life of service of the bus. That, the article suggests, makes the safety factor sound more reasonable.

» Outside of the seat belts, safety can always be improved: Following the Nov. 21, 2016, accident, Durham School Services, which operates most of the buses that transport Hamilton County Schools students, agreed to install smart cameras in all its buses and added bus monitors to improve behavior management, implemented a new online complaint system, examined the driver licenses and background checks of part-time drivers, and increased entry-level pay.

Hamilton County Schools officials also have said they made changes in their complaint system and their communications with Durham since the crash.

» Traffic laws aren't just hints: Bus driver Johnthony Walker allegedly was going 20 miles over the speed limit on Talley Road and holding a cellphone when the fatal crashed occurred. Talley Road is curvy and hilly, and the posted speed limit is 30 mph. State law prohibits drivers from using cellphones while the bus is in motion and transporting children, and prohibits drivers in all vehicles from texting while driving.

Attempting to slow a 25,000-36,000-pound school bus is no mean feat at any time, but a driver holding a cellphone trying to slow it when it is going 20 miles over the speed limit on a mini-roller coaster of a road is infinitely harder.

» Some folks try to profit from tragedy: Within days of the bus crash, out-of-town law firms were approaching families of crash victims about litigation. According to the Tennessee Rules of Professional Conduct, attorneys must wait 30 days before contacting people about litigation after a serious accident, or risk disbarment. In turn, the Tennessee Attorney General's Office released a statement saying it would use its "full authority" to prosecute attorneys who broke the rules.

Later, Tennessee Attorney General Herbert H. Slatery III filed a lawsuit against a Texas law firm for just such a prosecution. Among the allegations are that the law firm contacted a victim's family as family members were making funeral arrangements with a local firm, that the law firm offered to pay funeral costs in return for using its services and that the family could not bury its child until it signed a contract with the law firm.

» Tragedies bring out the best in us: The Woodmore Fund, which benefited the families affected by the school bus tragedy, raised $112,000. That included $25,000 from the Tennessee Titans. The then-University of Tennessee football coach and several players visited victims. Strangers donated teddy bears, money and pizzas from as far away as Ohio, said officials at Children's Hospital at Erlanger, where many of the injured were treated.

From all concerned, first responders reacted professionally, efficiently and courteously in dealing with the tragedy. From treating the injured to gathering scattered debris to notifying families of their loved ones' deaths, they seamlessly translated their one-on-one skills to the parameters of a multiple-victim scene and handled matters as if that were their daily task.

When - unfortunately not if - a similar incident occurs locally, what was learned on and after Nov. 21, 2016, may have provided valuable lessons.

Woodmore Elementary school bus crash