Hamilton County Schools leaders, police call for motorists to use caution when sharing the road with buses

The Crossing Arm is seen on a new school bus at the Hamilton County Department of Education on Wednesday, July 3, 2019 in Chattanooga, Tenn. First Student Inc. is providing the county with 185 new state-of-the-art buses which include GPS tracking systems, digital cameras, air conditioning and other features.

Local school and law enforcement officials are calling on Hamilton County drivers to be more diligent and careful when sharing the road with school buses.

Hamilton County Schools held a news conference alongside multiple law enforcement agencies Thursday to address recent incidents on the roads.

There have been at least 13 reported accidents involving school buses since students returned to class on Aug. 7. Eight of the incidents have involved other vehicles.

Though most of the accidents have been minor, at least 15 students have reported injuries or were transported to area hospitals.

Of the eight accidents involving other vehicles, including a head-on collision with a Jeep on Aug. 23, five of them have been the other motorists' fault, according to accident reports.

Anita Brown, senior location manager for First Student Inc., the district's transportation provider, asked the public for help with keeping students safe.

"Safety is at the heart of everything we do. We do need the public to help us by watching for the buses. We stop a lot and we go very slow, so please be aware that we are out there and help us take care of the children," Brown said Thursday. "We are extremely proud of the buses that we have here in Hamilton County. They are state of the art, they are big, they are yellow, they are flashy. I'm not sure how anybody could miss them."

A timeline of bus accidents

Aug. 8: One bus hit a mailbox, Chattanooga Police responded and no injuries were reported. A second bus' side mirror was sideswiped by a car. Hamilton County sheriff's deputies responded and concluded the bust was not at fault. Aug. 15: A bus hit and damaged a side mirror while making a left turn on Ooltewah Ringgold Road. Collegedale Police responded and no injuries were reported. Aug. 16: A bus struck a power pole, damaging its side mirror on Signal Mountain. No injuries were reported. Aug. 19: One bus hit an old, out-of-use fire hydrant. Soddy Daisy Police responded, no injuries or damage was reported. Another bus was rear-ended by a vehicle that then fled the scene. Chattanooga Police responded and no injuries were reported. Aug. 20: The rear of a bus hit the gate at Central High School. Chattanooga Police responded and no injuries were reported. Aug. 23: A bus traveling on Villagewood Drive was involved in a head-on collision with a Jeep. 13 students were transported to area hospitals, as well as the driver of the Jeep. Law enforcement responded and the Hamilton County Sheriff's Office concluded the bus was not at fault. Aug. 26: A motorist opened their car door into the side of a bus on MLK Blvd. Chattanooga Police responded and no injuries were reported. Aug. 27: A truck passed a bus, sideswiping the bus' side mirror. Law enforcement responded and one student reported a minor abrasion. Aug. 28: One bus traveling to Battle Academy was rear-ended by a vehicle that then fled the scene. . Chattanooga Police responded and on i juries were reported.Another bus was involved in an accident on Signal Mountain and no injuries were reported. Aug. 29: A bus backed into a ditch on Champion Road and when a rear-wheel left the roadway, the bus became stuck. One student was transported to a local hospital. School leaders, law enforcement call for motorists to use caution when sharing the road with buses

Chattanooga police have responded to four incidents this month, including a bus striking a mailbox and one backing into a gate at Central High School.

But Lt. Daniel Jones said Thursday that drivers need to ensure they stop when prompted to by a stopped bus.

"When you're on the road and see one of these buses - especially when you see the yellow flashing lights and then you see the red lights - ensure that everyone actually stops, because you might not see that little kindergartner coming around the front of the bus," Jones said. "Anytime you see the red flashing lights and you're not sure what to do, just stop. The best thing to do is just to be safe, specifically for our kids."

The most serious incident so far this year occurred on Aug. 23 when when 13 students from Brown Middle School and Central High School were taken to a local hospital after a crash on Villagewood Drive in Harrison. The students and driver of the other vehicle were treated and released.

The Hamilton County Sheriff's Office found that the bus was not at fault in the accident, but the same bus was involved in another incident Thursday morning.

First Student and school district officials met Monday to discuss the incident and how to prevent more in the future.

Hamilton County Schools spokesman Tim Hensley reminded the community to be cautious and take extra time, especially in the morning.

"Hamilton County has a lot of routes, a lot of buses out there, and we need people to be extra careful about them because there are children on the buses and we want our children to get from home to school safely and back home again," he said.

First Student operates more than 280 buses, and the district contracts with an additional 70 independently-operated buses to transport more than 20,000 students every day. Of the accidents so far this year, eight have included a First Student bus and five have included contractor buses.

This year marks the first of Hamilton County Schools' new contract with First Student Inc., replacing the contentious relationship the district had with Durham School Services.

After the 2016 Woodmore Elementary School bus crash that killed six students, community members called for the district to sever ties with Durham, citing myriad safety concerns.

First Student spent much of the summer readying its fleet of brand new buses with enhanced safety features including multiple cameras on every bus, headlights that mimic similar lights on emergency vehicles, air conditioning and more.

Later this year, First Student will launch its mobile app, First View, that will allow parents to track buses while they are on their routes. The app is available for download now, but won't be active for parent use until October.

District officials are working to connect Hamilton County Schools' bus routing software to the app to provide up-to-date information for parents, according to a new release.

The app will allow parents to know when the bus will arrive for a child to be picked up or dropped off. Parents also will be able to set alerts or notifications through the app.

For questions or concerns about buses, bus stops and routes, call Hamilton County Schools' Transportation Department Hotline at 423-498-5555 between 6 a.m. and 6 p.m.

Contact Meghan Mangrum at mmangrum@timesfreepress.com or 423-757- 6592. Follow her on Twitter @memangrum.