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Updated: Wednesday, 31 Oct 2012, 11:39 AM EDT
Published : Tuesday, 30 Oct 2012, 10:20 PM EDT
INDIANAPOLIS (WISH) - Four months after a Carmel-Clay school bus driver who wasn’t wearing his seat belt was bounced out of his seat , I-Team 8 hit the road to see if other children are being driven into harm’s way. It didn’t take long for our cameras to capture problems.
Surveillance video from that Carmel crash last May showed the driver’s seat belt hanging, unbuckled by his side, as his bus became a 30,000 pound battering ram, slamming through a fence and into a home.
The driver had been bounced out of his “air cushion” seat after hitting a bump. Fortunately, there were no children on board, and the driver wasn’t seriously hurt.
“The bus driver needs to be in control of the bus,” said Indiana State Police Sgt. Steve Whitaker, who works in the Commercial Vehicle Enforcement Division. “And, if he or she would hit a bump or something similar to what happened in Carmel — with their air ride seats they use now — just one little bump could shoot you out of the seat.”
Indiana’s seat belt laws are intended to prevent that.
Even though students don't have to buckle up on board, drivers do.
"The driver still has to wear a safety belt or a restraint system,” Whitaker said. “If they're not adjusted properly, and they don't have their belt on, it's not going to take much [to bounce them out the seat.]”
In Indiana, the law says bus drivers must wear whatever belt the vehicle was manufactured with. It also says that belt "must prevent the driver from sliding sideways under the belt."
“Buses that have a gross vehicle weight rating over 10,000 pounds are not required to have a lap and shoulder harness,” Whitaker said. “Most of the newer buses do, but some may only have [lap belts].”
But, the belts only work if they're worn.
So, are they?
HITTING THE STREETS
I-Team 8 went to four local school districts in search of the answer.
On a Friday afternoon in Franklin Township, our clearly visible cameras captured 24 drivers heading into the parking lot outside Franklin Central High School to pick up students.
At least two of the drivers appeared to have shoulder belts hanging unfastened by their side.
We checked the same drivers after they had picked up students, and two more appeared to have a fastened shoulder belt — but then they sat on top of it. Another driver put the shoulder belt under her arm.
“I am very surprised at that,” said Judy Pauls, whose granddaughter Danielle rides the bus to school every day. “I can't believe that. I really can't. I would think that would be one of the first things they would do when they get on the bus.”
Other parents said they've seen violations before.
“Because you'd see it,” said Danielle Winsted, whose son Colton rides the bus. “My son knows about belts. He'll tell anybody, ‘You're supposed to buckle up!’ It's a law for everybody else to wear it, and it’s a law for them. So, they should be wearing it.”
We took our findings to Franklin Township Superintendent Flora Reichanadter. She called I-Team 8’s video surprising.
“And I would probably say disappointed as well,” she said. “Because not only is it an expectation of us, it is the law. If the seat belt is on the bus, the bus driver is expected to wear it. It is the law. It is our expectation that they wear the belt. And, if they aren't, obviously we have a training issue, and possibly a disciplinary issue. It is not OK for us to have our drivers not wearing belts.”
In Columbus, our cameras checked 28 bus drivers outside Bartholomew County Schools, and we found two that appeared to have seat belts hanging by their side. Again, the video also shows some correctly wearing lap belts. But, it also shows a shoulder belt fastened behind one driver and another driver wearing a shoulder belt under her arm.
Whitaker says that too is against the law.
“They're not being worn properly. There's a reason they're designed a certain way and to be worn a certain way for safety purposes. If it's not being worn properly, that could be a violation,” he said.
We repeatedly called and emailed school administrators in Columbus to ask for their reaction to what we found, but no one returned our calls.
Outside Bloomington South High School, we found three school bus drivers who appeared not to be properly buckled up with shoulder belts.
Transportation Director Mike Clark told I-Team 8 that all new Monroe County Community Schools buses are equipped with both lap and shoulder belts for drivers, though some older buses and private operator buses only have lap belts. Regardless, Clark said all driver belts are expected to be worn at all times when the bus is in motion.
“Failing to wear a seat belt is inexcusable,” Clark told I-Team 8. “They’re required by state law and we expect our drivers to comply.”
Just three months after the accident in Carmel, three of the 31 Carmel-Clay school bus drivers we captured on video appeared not to be properly buckled, including one driver who appeared to have a belt buckled behind her, one who appeared to have a black shoulder belt hanging by her side, and one with a bright orange belt hanging by her side.
We asked to meet with administrators, but were denied. So, I-Team 8 went to a public Carmel-Clay school board meeting last week, hoping to show our video to Superintendent Jeff Swensson.
But, when asked if he would watch it with us, he shook his head.
“No, I wouldn’t,” he said.
We wanted to know if Carmel-Clay schools also have buses equipped with only lap-belts, but a district spokesperson said administrators would have no comment.
RESPONDING TO THE PROBLEM
The Indiana State Bus Drivers Association isn't defending what I-Team 8’s cameras found, however.
“Drivers are aware of [the law]. That is part of the training process, and they're told that they have to buckle up. All corporations have the policy in place. It's the state law. So, they need to do it [with] no excuses,” said ISBDA President Ron Chew.
Asked about parental reaction to the video, Chew said he understands their frustration.
“I would say they clearly have a right to be upset about that,” he said. “The drivers know. They should be setting an example out there.”
In both Franklin Township and Bloomington, administrators said they'll use I-Team 8’s investigation as a learning tool.
“We occasionally get reports from parents about drivers not wearing [seat] belts and we investigate each of them. We periodically do checks, and we’ll be following up on this as well,” Clark said.
“Anytime somebody brings something to your attention, it helps you reevaluate your procedures and the processes you put in place. This clearly is going to have us do some retraining, how often we spot check, and how we hold our bus drivers accountable,” Reichanadter said.
In both districts, administrators said discipline for drivers will be handled individually.
“Our policy specifies that drivers follow the law. When there's a disciplinary issue, a process takes place, and it depends on the history of the driver. So, we’ll take these on a case-by-case basis,” Reichanadter said.
Whitaker says because there are still a number of lap belt only school buses out on Indiana roads, violations can be hard to see. But, he stressed that police across the state are still watching for them.
“We have not done [targeted enforcement on bus driver seat belt use] in the past, and we really don't have any plans to do it in the future,” he said. “But, we are here to enforce the law. And, officers are [watching during routine patrols]. When we become aware of violations, we want to make it known to whomever it needs to be known. And, certainly we would be going and investigating.”
“I know I'm going to pay attention a lot more,” said Winsted, one of the parents I-Team 8 spoke to. “I'll be right there fighting with anybody else who will fight for it. And, if I see [the driver] not wearing a belt, I’m going to speak up.”
I-Team 8 will continue to investigate this issue, and we’re asking for your help. Look to see if your child's bus driver is buckled up — at the bus stop, at school and on the roads — and send us your pictures or video using the Report It! feature on the WISH-TV smartphone app , on our website , or by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org .