Are States Protecting Students From Impaired School Bus Drivers?
Lawmakers and advocacy groups agree that stricter laws are needed.
By Casey Leins, Staff Writer
February 12, 2020
WHEN QUINTON HIGGINS Jr. was 15 years old, he survived the deadliest drunk-driving crash in American history. He was on a bus coming home from a church-arranged trip to an amusement park in 1988 when the vehicle was hit by a pickup truck driving on the wrong side of the road.
The crash killed 27 passengers, including 24 children. Ten years ago, Higgins became a bus driver in Hardin County, Kentucky, and he now speaks with students and bus drivers around the region about the dangers of driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs.
In his efforts to spread awareness about the subject, Higgins bought a full-size replica of the school bus from the 1988 crash. The bus reads “27 reasons not to drink and drive” on the outside, and he placed pictures of the crash victims on the seats where they were sitting at the time of the accident.
Higgins says there aren’t enough policies related to bus drivers to ensure the safety of students, whose lives are in the hands of their driver every time they step on the bus.
Many lawmakers, advocates against impaired driving and other officials agree that states must do more to protect children against impaired school bus drivers. A recent report by Pew Charitable Trusts’ Stateline noted that school districts and states aren’t collecting data on how many drivers are arrested on suspicion of using alcohol or drugs and how many have failed random testing while on the clock. While limited funding remains a hurdle to implementing stricter policies, many agree that states can take further steps to prevent impaired drivers from getting behind the wheel.
In its report, Stateline identified 118 cases since 2015 in which a school bus driver was arrested or cited by police on suspicion of driving while under the influence, and hundreds of others failed random drug testing. These 118 cases put more than 1,620 schoolchildren in 38 states in harm’s way, Stateline determined.
As Stateline describes, many impaired drivers go undetected in part because they don’t interact with anyone before they begin work, meaning that supervisors and coworkers don’t have the chance to act if they smell like alcohol or show signs of drug or alcohol use.
Higgins explains that some school bus drivers park their bus in front of their house, so they might not see anyone before driving. He also says that bus drivers often work a couple of hours early in the morning and have a few hours off before their afternoon shift.
“You’ll find out there’s a lot of stuff going on out there,” he says, explaining that drivers could be drinking alcohol between shifts. “I guarantee you’re passing impaired drivers every day,” he adds.
In Walton County, Georgia, where a bus driver was charged with a DUI and child endangerment after a child contacted her mother about the woman’s erratic driving in 2017, drivers are now required to print their name and do a visual check-in every morning with another driver, according to Stateline. But many bus drivers aren’t evaluated by anyone before driving.
States have made other efforts to protect students in recent years, such as New York’s 2018 bill requiring drivers to undergo random drug and alcohol testing regardless of the bus size. (A prior law exempted buses with fewer than 16 passengers.) The New York law also prohibits bus drivers from drinking or using a drug for eight hours before their shift, instead of the former six hours, according to Stateline.
A 2013 bill in New York would have required every school bus to have an ignition interlock, in which the bus would not start unless the driver is sober. The legislation was rejected because opponents claimed it was too expensive and technically challenging, Stateline reported.
Frank Harris, director of state government affairs for Mothers Against Drunk Driving, says he thinks the key to preventing bus drivers from working while impaired is advancing vehicle technology that can detect if a driver is sober. He says this technology would be different than the ignition interlocks.
Harris says Congress is looking at legislation that would require all new vehicles to have this technology, but that there are other measures states should take now while that legislation is still under review.
According to Mothers Against Drunk Driving, 48 states have laws in statute that allow for extra charges for a DUI with a child passenger (the definition ranges from under age 15 to under age 21) in the car. But Harris says there isn’t data to show if states are actually using these statutes. He believes that they are often used as a bargaining chip to get defendants to plead guilty to a DUI, meaning that the driver gets away without the child endangerment charge.
“Whether (these child endangerment laws) are being utilized is the million-dollar question,” he says, adding that MADD views driving under the influence with a minor in the car as child abuse.
Higgins, who survived the deadly Kentucky crash, pointed out a few additional policies he wishes school districts would implement for bus drivers. He would like to see districts require a monitor to help the driver keep students under control on the bus, and he would like to see better background checks on drivers before they are employed. But he says there aren’t many policies around bus drivers’ work.
“Even our lawmakers, they don’t take our job seriously,” Higgins says. “A lot of people just don’t see our job as something that needs to really be watched.”