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Photo from the National Transportation Safety Board report on the Oakland bus fire that claimed two lives.

The National Transportation Safety Board’s final report on the Oakland crash that claimed the lives of a Riverside Community School District bus driver and a 16-year-old Riverside student brought a stern warning not only to Riverside officials but also to school officials throughout Iowa and the nation.

Meeting in Washington Tuesday to discuss the results of its investigation into the Dec. 12, 2017, accident, NTSB officials said the Riverside Community School District had allowed Donald Hendricks, 74, to continue driving despite physical limitations that made it difficult for him to take appropriate actions in an emergency situation.

The bus Hendricks was driving got stuck in a ditch as he backed the vehicle after picking up a student.

The NTSB report speculated that Hendricks gunned the engine in an effort to drive the bus out of the ditch. With the exhaust pipe blocked by the position of the bus in the ditch, the turbo charger overloaded and started a fire.

“In the absence of a fire suppression system, superheated gases, flames and smoke spread quickly into the passenger compartment,” the report said.

NTSB investigators speculated that Hendricks could not evacuate and that Megan Klindt, the 16-year-old student who also died in the accident, was attempting to assist the driver when she was overcome by smoke and superheated gases.

The NTSB report ruled out a number of potential causes for the mishap, including bus mechanical issues, alcohol or drug impairment, driver fatigue or distraction, roadway design or weather conditions. The report also noted that the emergency response by firefighters and law enforcement was adequate and timely.

But the investigative report specifically cited the district’s failure to take Hendricks off the road as part of the “probable cause” for the mishap.

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“The report very well establishes that the school district failed in their responsibility, and unfortunately two people lost their lives; and other lives have been shattered as a result of that failure,” NTSB Chairman Robert Sumwalt said during the agency’s discussion of the findings.

Board members approved a series of recommendations in connection with the fatal crash that included:

  • Federal regulators should step up the requirements on school bus fire safety, including for fire suppression systems. Those requirements haven’t been updated in decades, they said.
  • States should require their school bus d
  • rivers to pass a physical performance test upon hiring, at least once a year and at other times when circumstances warrant.
  • Iowa should inform its school districts about the facts of the Oakland crash and lessons learned.

“We’ve got to send the message that, by God, if you’re a school district you have a responsibility to make sure that you’re providing the oversight that those kids deserve,” Sumwalt said.

Sumwalt is absolutely correct in his comment. Unfortunately, until the NTSB’s recommendations become enforceable regulations they will, too often, be relegated by cash-strapped school districts to the back burner.

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