Chris Turner, a program director at the Commercial Vehicle Safety Alliance, an international association of commercial vehicle safety officials, agrees that every school bus should be equipped with some sort of detection device.
Highway safety groups such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) and the National Safety Council also support the idea.
But David Kelly, executive director of the Coalition of Ignition Interlock Manufacturers, a trade association, said that to his knowledge, there is no formal ignition interlock school bus program anywhere in the country, though in France and Finland they have been mandatory for years.
“In some places, you have a strong union you have to deal with and you have collective bargaining agreements,” he said. “Bus drivers are the main opposition. And when you’re trying to recruit drivers, that is an issue as well.”
Ignition interlocks typically cost between $2 and $3 a day, including monitoring, for a regular vehicle, Kelly said. He didn’t know what it would cost to put them on school buses.
Some school transportation officials say ignition interlocks are a tough sell because many districts already are squeezed for funding and dealing with bus driver shortages.
Others argue that putting an interlock device on every school bus may send a message to drivers that they’re not trusted.
“There’s no question drivers would be PO’d,” said Paul Hilton, executive director of the Cape Cod Collaborative, a Massachusetts-based entity owned by school districts that provides school transportation. “Is it reasonable for the operation and respectful and absolutely necessary? That’s not a political argument I’d want to engage in.”
Lima, the Rhode Island legislator, said she doesn’t buy the argument that ignition interlocks would be too expensive or violate privacy.
“We’re not picking on any one individual. We’re just putting a safety device in all of the buses,” she said. “I think we need to be proactive, rather than reactive and wait till a group of children get hurt or die.”
Some transportation safety officials want school districts to expand the pool of drivers who get randomly screened for drugs and alcohol. Currently, the federal government requires that only 25% of the pool get tested for drugs and 10% for alcohol annually, and most school districts don’t go beyond that.
Another recommendation is to step up “reasonable suspicion” training for managers who look for signs that drivers may be impaired. If they find them, they can send the driver for immediate drug and alcohol testing.
Turner, of the commercial vehicle safety group, said his members want the federal law changed to require managers to take a refresher course every three years.
Observing bus drivers before they start their routes can prevent someone who is impaired from getting on the road.
“Supervisors and school transportation directors really need to get out there and be amongst the troops and have their finger on the pulse,” said Robert Berkstresser, a California-based commercial bus expert. “You can tell when someone is responding slower and they have that far-off look in their eyes.”
In some North Carolina counties, MADD teams up with police to put on presentations in schools that teach sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders how to identify a driver, including a school bus driver, who is impaired.
“It’s the best thing we’ve ever done,” said Ellen Pitt, a court monitor and crime victim advocate for MADD in Western North Carolina. “A state trooper sometimes pretends to be the driver and has them check his eyes, speech, coordination and smell.”
Surveys found that after the training, the children had become more aware of the potential danger, Pitt said.
Educating children about the warning signs is essential, said Quinton Higgins Jr., a school bus driver and traffic safety advocate in Radcliff, Kentucky. He travels around the state telling his story not only to students, church groups and community organizations but to other school bus drivers.
Higgins and other members of a youth group were passengers on a church bus struck head-on by a pickup truck driven by a drunken driver in Carrollton, Kentucky, in 1988. The gas tank exploded, and 24 children and three adults died.
In 2014, Higgins founded Voice for Change, an advocacy group focused on bus safety and the dangers of impaired driving. He purchased an exact model of the bus that crashed and placed photos of the children who died on the seats. He drives it around Kentucky to his speaking engagements.
Higgins supports ignition interlocks on school buses, daily visual checks and random testing of every driver — anything that he said can help prevent a potential disaster. While most bus drivers with years of experience do a good job and are careful to follow safety standards, he said, there’s lots of turnover in the industry and drivers with an alcohol or drug problem can go unnoticed.
“I guarantee there are school bus drivers out there right now on the road under the influence of prescription drugs or alcohol,” Higgins said. “Every state should be passing a law to deal with this.”
How We Did It
To report this story, Stateline conducted more than 60 interviews and collected information from dozens of local police departments and court clerks. It also contacted 268 state agencies in 50 states and the District of Columbia, many of which said they did not maintain information about impaired school bus drivers or were unable to conduct such a query.
Stateline also filed more than four dozen public records requests with state and local agencies to try to get data and police and court records.
Some agencies denied those requests.
In Delaware, for example, the Department of Safety and Homeland Security concluded that a request for data or information about impaired school bus drivers arrested or involved in a crash was exempt from the Freedom of Information Act, partly because it didn’t come from a Delaware resident.
In New Jersey, the Motor Vehicle Commission denied an open records request for information about school bus drivers who had actions taken against their commercial license for driving a bus while impaired. The agency said the information was not deemed to be a government record, that it was bound by privacy laws and that even if the information could be produced, its redaction “would significantly disrupt [agency] operations.”
Some agencies tried to charge large fees, which Stateline declined to pay.
In Missouri, the Department of Revenue, which oversees driver licensing, said it would take the state’s information technology office 133 hours and cost an estimated $9,975 to run a query to determine the number of cases of impaired school bus drivers since 2015 and what actions were taken against them. The agency did provide numbers from a report about all drivers with school bus permits who had suspensions on their record, but the report did not include the reasons for the suspensions.
In Louisiana, the Office of Motor Vehicles said it would cost $800 in programming fees to pull data showing how many commercial drivers with a school bus endorsement had been convicted of alcohol-related offenses. But the data would not differentiate whether the person was driving a school bus at the time of the offense.
Some local agencies also made it difficult to get information.
In Baldwin County, Alabama, the Sheriff’s Office sent an arrest report in which the entire narrative was blacked out.
Baldwin County Sheriff's Office report (PDF)
In Nevada, the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department referred a reporter to the Clark County District Attorney’s Office to get a copy of a police report involving an allegedly impaired school bus driver arrested after an April 2019 crash. The district attorney’s office suggested contacting the Las Vegas Justice Court. The court required a reporter to file a motion explaining why the court should allow “non-public information” to be disclosed. A judge then granted the motion to release the police report.