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Lessons from Deadly School Bus Crash Go Unlearned

(Story created: 11/17/05)

A NewsChannel 5 investigation first revealed eye-opening lessons from a deadly school bus crash. It has lawmakers talking about putting seat belts on school buses. And, now, two mothers who lost children say even more could be done to protect other kids.

They are two mothers united in grief, their two children united in death.

"What better else than to be buried beside somebody that you know?"

Yet, even at the resting place for 9-year-old Daniel Pack and 6-year-old Kayla Silvers, the distant wail of a train's horn brings a haunting reminder.

"Once you hear that train, these if ands or buts goes through your head," Kayla's mom Sonja Miller tells NewsChannel 5's chief investigative reporter Phil Williams.

The questions go back to the morning five years ago that they got on a school bus.

Daniel headed straight for the back. "He loved that back seat," recalls Daniel's mom June Sluder.

Kayla skipped down the aisle, first taking one seat, then moving closer to 9-year-old Amber Pritchett.

And in those last moments of their lives, this is what their mothers want you to see:

"I want them to see the carelessness, the way our kids were really taken care of," Miller says.

That morning the driver had an old country song cranked up on the radio.

"I don't see how she could not hear the train," Sluder says.

But inside the bus, all they heard was George Jones and Tammy Wynette as the bus crossed into a train's path.

Kayla was sitting right where it hit, as was her friend Amber. 

Still, Daniel's mom still wonders whether it might have ended differently if he'd had a seat belt.

"He might have survived it," Sluder says, "'cause he was slung out of the bus."

Yet, any thoughts that their children's deaths might lead to efforts to keep other children safe are now just as distant as the horns of the passing trains.

"What has changed since your children died?" Williams asks the two women.

"Just arms on the railroad crossing," Miller replies. "That's it."

Today, there are lights and gates at the crossing where the children were killed.  That's because, under Tennessee state law, they're required - but only after a life has been lost.

In fact, the Tennessee Department of Transportation (TDOT) says that at more than 600 railroad crossings across Tennessee, school buses drive across tracks where there are not any sort of warning signals.

That's why crash investigators at the National Transportation Safety Board recommended that Tennessee install stop signs at such crossings -- unless the sign itself would create a safety hazard.

And remember the music on the bus.

Investigators suggested that states require that all school buses have noise-reducing switches. Those would kill all radio and fan noise inside a bus when the driver stops for railroad crossings.

Both recommendations are on the NTSB's "Most Wanted"  list of safety improvements.

"I don't think a radio should be allowed on a bus at all," Sluder says.

While not going that far, investigators did recommend disconnecting all radio speakers located near bus drivers' heads that might drown out the horn of an train, or even an on-coming semi.

Tennessee hasn't enacted any of the recommendations.

"Do you ever think that your children died in vain?" Williams asks.

"Yeah," Miller answers, "because there's nothing that's been done."

They say, until something is done for other kids, their own agony won't be over:

"As long as there's unsafetiness for our kids, it will never be over."

As far as the recommendations, the one about putting up stop signs has been controversial.

TDOT says putting up too many stop signs risks the possibility that drivers start ignoring them. Plus, school bus drivers are required by law to stop at crossings anyway.

Still, seven states have followed the NTSB's recommendation.

As for the others involving the radioes and speakers, that very issue has been a factor in other school bus crashes.

Georgia -- where the bus in this case originated -- has followed both recommendations on interior bus noise.

But no one from the state had a good explanation about why Tennessee hasn't done anything.

More information:
National Highway Traffic Safety Administration position paper -- Defends compartmentalization (the current safety standard)
NHTSA's Report to Congress -- Finds some potential benefits to lap-shoulder belts
National Transportation Safety Board study -- Finds compartmentalization "incomplete"
NTSB investigation -- Report of bus-train collision reaffirms limits of compartmentalization
School Transportation News -- Analysis of seat belt debate
National Coalition for School Bus Safety -- Position of advocacy group
Safeguard -- Web site of seat belt developer
State of Missouri -- Gov. Matt Blunt pushes lap-shoulder belt on new buses

Contact the governor
Contact state senators
Contact state representatives

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