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Speeches

Opening Statement, Oakland, Iowa School Bus Fire
Robert L. Sumwalt
NTSB Boardroom and Conference Center, Washington, DC
6/18/2019

Good morning and welcome to the Boardroom of the National Transportation Safety Board.

I am Robert Sumwalt, and I’m honored to serve as the Chairman of the NTSB. Joining us are my colleagues on the Board: Vice Chairman Bruce Landsberg, Member Earl Weener, and Member Jennifer Homendy.

Today, we meet in open session, as required by the Government in the Sunshine Act, to consider the fatal fire on board a school bus after it ran off the road near Oakland, Iowa, on December 12, 2017.

The 74-year-old driver had entered a private driveway to pick up his first passenger of the morning. As he did routinely, he reversed across 480th Street, the gravel road that ran past the student’s rural residence.

But on this morning, the driver kept reversing and the rear wheels of the bus dropped into a drainage ditch. The bus became immobilized with its exhaust pipe wedged into the embankment. The driver attempted to regain traction and drive forward but could not. A fire began in the engine compartment, eventually engulfing the bus. Tragically, both the driver and the 16-year-old student passenger died in the fire.

On behalf of the entire NTSB, our sincerest condolences to the loved ones of both the driver and the student who lost their lives that morning. Our thoughts are also with the school and the community. We know that you have lost two of your own.

Today, we will recount the facts of that day as needed. Please understand that our goal is to help prevent the same thing from happening again.

Statistically, students are safer riding to school on the bus than in the family car, and far safer than they would be with a teen driving. But when our students step on board the school bus, we should have no doubt that everything possible is being done to keep them safe.

Their drivers should be medically fit not only to operate the vehicle, but also to assist in its evacuation in an emergency. Robust oversight on the part of the school district should ensure the safety of student transportation.

But in Oakland, Iowa, that did not happen.

Today, we will not only discuss the cause of this fire. We will also discuss the lack of an evacuation once the fire was underway.

The driver had mobility challenges. Despite the fact that he held a valid medical certificate, he used a cane or a walker to walk, and he was due to have surgery two days after the date of the fire.

After a crash, it is easy to recognize that medically unfit drivers present a hazard to passengers and to themselves.

But a school district must act before a crash—when the crash is only a possibility.

And in crash after crash, we see medically unfit drivers continuing to work past the point where their condition creates a hazard—and we see that school districts allow them to do so. The driver in Oakland had been allowed to continue driving despite the fact that the transportation supervisor, the school principal, and the driver’s coworkers knew of the driver’s physical impairment.

The Iowa Administrative Code specified that drivers must be physically able to help ill or injured passengers, and that an employer could evaluate a driver’s ability to assist in an evacuation.

The Riverside Community School District (RCSD) had the knowledge it needed to act. It did not. In fact, in recent years, it had gone so far as to do away with physical performance tests for drivers.

It’s now after the Oakland crash, so we can clearly see the need for the driver to have been medically fit. We can see in vivid relief how flawed or absent oversight can lead to tragic results.

But school districts might still take the “before” viewpoint, and behave as if what happened near Oakland will not happen to them. So here’s another way to look at it for administrators: right now, it’s also before the next crash.

What do you know about your drivers? What do you know about their training and their ability to perform during an emergency? What could you learn by testing your drivers’ ability to physically perform their duties during a drill?

We will also discuss the safety of the school bus itself. Fire suppression systems, fire-resistant interior materials, and improved fire safety performance standards could have provided more time for the driver and the student in this tragedy.

Yet the fire safety standards for school buses have not changed significantly since 1971, the year the microprocessor was invented. Now we carry computers in our pockets many times more powerful than the room-sized supercomputers of that era. But in 48 years, federal standards for school bus fire safety haven’t significantly improved. That’s despite major changes in fire safety in aviation and railroad transportation. 

To its credit, the school bus industry has voluntarily gone beyond the federal standards in many cases. Today we will discuss higher Federal standards that can set a single, high bar for school bus fire safety, providing additional time for those who find themselves in any future school bus fire.

Staff has pursued all avenues in proposing findings, a probable cause, and recommendations to the Board.

The order of the meeting will be that the NTSB staff will briefly present pertinent facts and analysis found in the draft report.  We on the Board will then question staff. We will also propose and vote on any amendments necessary to ensure that the report as adopted truly provides the best opportunity to enhance safety.

The public docket for the accident is available at www.ntsb.gov. It contains additional information, including other bus fire investigations, school bus driver qualifications, photos and post-accident interviews. Once finalized, the accident report will also be available on our website.

Now, Managing Director Sharon Bryson, if you would kindly introduce the staff.