AUSTIN (KXAN) — Federal investigators say speed was a major factor in a deadly school bus crash in Chattanooga, Tenn. Five children died when the bus flipped on its side and hit a tree. Police say the driver, Johnthony Walker, was going well over the 30 mph speed limit before losing control. He is now charged with five counts of vehicular homicide.
Investigators will learn a lot through the bus’ data recorders, essentially a black box of information. KXAN wanted to know what equivalents exist on school buses here locally.
Both the Texas School Safety Center and Texas Association for Pupil Transportation (TAPT) say when the term “black box” is used in reference to school buses, it’s more likely referring to GPS and camera systems that track not only routes, but also speed. TAPT says no state agency collects data on the optional equipment, but most of the larger school districts do have them, including Austin Independent School District.
At the playground beside Zilker Elementary, parents were crestfallen at the mention of the tragedy in Chattanooga.
“The first thing you ever think about is thank God it wasn’t mine. And then, you know, you’re sorry for the parents who have to deal with that sort of pain,” Elaine Keller, who has a grandson at Zilker Elementary said. Keller says she has always advocated for having an adult monitor on board school buses, in addition to the bus driver.
“I think that the monitor on board, whether that’s a parent volunteering or someone paid by the district or whomever, I think that that person should be responsible for making sure that seat belts are on and the kids are not fighting, they’re staying in their seats and being safe,” Keller said.
AISD Transportation Director Kris Hafezizadeh told KXAN district buses are equipped with digital cameras and live GPS, a system that has been in place for eight years and does track speed. Though no one monitors the speed 24/7, drivers know AISD can pull the history data of any bus at any time. Hafezizadeh says it works as a prevention tool.
AISD upgraded its GPS system last year to include the “Where’s The Bus” app, which allows parents to see their child’s bus’ estimated arrival time at a particular bus stop.
AISD has each of its buses equipped with at least a lap belt. About half of the district’s school buses have lap and shoulder belts, which the district started purchasing six years ago. In school districts that do not have belts on every bus, the cost to add belts to just one bus is between $7,500 and $8,500. Sometimes districts will wait to get the seat belt until a bus is replaced. Still, that time frame every 15 years or 250,000 miles, whichever comes first.
“It was truly a tragedy what happened in Tennessee. Our thoughts and prayers are with the Chattanooga community,” Hafezizadeh said.
KXAN also heard back from Eanes ISD, which shared that its buses are equipped with Transfinder GPS systems that track speed and location as well. The buses also have cameras on the inside and outside, which capture both audio and video.