Drunken School Bus Drivers Put Kids’ Lives at Risk

By: - January 22, 2020 12:00 am

Impaired School Bus Drivers: Risky Ride (First in a series)

DAYTON, Tenn. — Trista Freeman climbed onto school bus #41 on a chilly morning in November 2018 and knew immediately something was wrong: When the driver greeted her, she smelled alcohol on his breath.

Minutes later, the bus began swerving across lanes and blowing through red lights. Trista was panic-stricken as the bus, with her and 26 other high school students aboard, nearly hit a car.

“Everyone on the bus was freaking out, yelling for him to stop,” she recalled. “I was really scared.”

Trista, now 16, her older brother, Cody, and some of the other kids on board frantically called or texted their parents, alerting them to the frightening ride in this small manufacturing town about 40 miles northeast of Chattanooga.

“There was so much chaos on the bus. All I know is I wanted off,” said Rose Reynolds, who was then 16. She phoned her mother, and her father, a volunteer firefighter, contacted police.

Other parents started flooding the school transportation department and 911 with calls.

A supervisor radioed the bus driver, Michael Ledbetter, and told him to pull over to the side of the highway. Police arrived and gave him field sobriety tests, which he failed. A blood test later revealed he had a .127 blood alcohol level — more than three times the legal limit for commercial drivers.

“Everybody makes mistakes,” said Lisa Freeman, Trista’s mother. “But what if he had wrecked that bus and hurt those kids? No parent wants to get that phone call.”

Ledbetter, 60, pleaded guilty in July to driving under the influence while accompanied by a child and reckless endangerment. A judge sentenced him to 30 days in jail and 18 months of probation. Both he and his attorney, Mechelle Story Barbato, declined to comment.

What happened that morning in Tennessee happens more often than is commonly known.

Nationwide, more than 1,620 schoolchildren in 38 states have been placed in harm’s way since 2015 by bus drivers arrested or cited for allegedly driving while impaired by alcohol or drugs — a situation that despite its dangers goes largely untracked by government officials, a Stateline investigation has found.

School transportation groups point out that school buses are the safest means for students to get to school, and most drivers would never put children at risk. None of these incidents resulted in a bus driver or passenger fatality, and most of the students were not injured.

But highway safety advocates say officials need to do a better job monitoring drivers entrusted with children’s lives. A months-long Stateline review of police records, court filings and news media reports in the last five years found:

  • Police have caught at least 118 drivers from California to Massachusetts operating a school bus while allegedly impaired. Some were hauled off in handcuffs; others were issued citations and not allowed to continue their route.
  • More than a third of the cases involved a bus crash. Among them: a driver in New Mexico who admitted to police that he downed several tall cans of Coors Light that morning before smashing his bus into a tree after nearly driving off a bridge with 25 petrified children on board, and a driver in Wisconsin high on pain and anti-anxiety pills who veered off the road and careened into a cornfield with four students on the bus.
  • In all, the school bus crashes injured nearly three dozen students, some seriously enough to require a trip to a hospital emergency room.
  • While most of the 118 cases involved alcohol, about a third of the drivers allegedly had taken drugs, a situation some officials say is an unfortunate outgrowth of the nation’s struggle to control overuse of opioids and other prescription medication.
  • Many other impaired school bus drivers have been identified through random drug and alcohol screenings, sometimes after they’ve finished their routes. Stateline found that at least 260 drivers in five states failed or refused to take the tests since 2015.
  • No one at the state or federal level appears to track cases involving impaired school bus drivers, and many state agencies weren’t even able to compile such information.

“It’s pretty shocking,” said Russ Martin, government relations director for the Governors Highway Safety Association, which represents state highway safety offices, when told of Stateline’s findings. “Certainly, we all know impaired driving is a big problem, but to have it occur with school bus drivers is amazing. We ought to diagnose what the problem is and figure out the best way to fix it.”

But diagnosing the problem isn’t an easy task. While local school districts are aware of individual cases, that data generally isn’t collected, aggregated or analyzed at the state level.

To measure the extent of the problem, Stateline contacted 268 agencies in 50 states and the District of Columbia, from education and transportation departments to state police and court systems, only to find that about 11% could come up with any incidents or data.

Many agencies said they couldn’t capture that level of detail or break out the occupation of a person who was arrested or had a commercial driver’s license suspended or revoked. And most states didn’t know how many school bus drivers had failed random drug and alcohol tests.

In some states, agencies searched their databases and found no cases, even though Stateline had found one or more. Others pulled incidents they thought involved impaired bus drivers, which turned out to be inaccurate because data had been entered incorrectly or a police officer had checked the wrong box on a form. Most couldn’t do a query at all to search for incidents involving impaired school bus drivers.

“This needs to change. States need to be collecting this data and tracking it very thoroughly,” said Ron Replogle, national law enforcement initiatives manager for Mothers Against Drunk Driving. “This is something parents and the general public would want to be monitored closely.”

School Bus Driver Requirements

Federal law requires school bus drivers to hold a commercial driver’s license issued by their state, if the bus carries 16 or more people. They must pass skills and knowledge tests and have a special “endorsement” to carry students, which requires additional testing.

The federal government requires that commercial drivers be certified every two years, a process that includes a medical exam. School bus drivers typically are exempt under federal law, but many states require certification or enforce even tougher standards.

School bus drivers, like other commercial drivers, may not use alcohol within four hours of going on duty. Those found to have any measurable amount of alcohol in their system must be placed “out of service” for 24 hours. That means they are not allowed to operate a commercial vehicle during that time.

The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration has set the blood alcohol threshold for driving under the influence at .04 for commercial drivers, including school bus drivers, making them subject to sanctions on their license. (States have established a .08 DUI standard for regular drivers, except Utah, where it is .05.)

A commercial driver convicted of driving under the influence of alcohol or a controlled substance or who has a blood alcohol level of .04 or higher is disqualified from driving a commercial vehicle for one year. A second conviction results in a lifetime disqualification, although they may be eligible for reinstatement after 10 years.

School bus drivers also can be criminally charged for driving impaired by alcohol or drugs. The presence of a minor on board often can increase the criminal charges and penalties. Depending on the state, penalties range from fines to probation to jail or prison.

Most states don’t have a criminal statute that specifically addresses impaired school bus drivers, but some do.

Among them:

  • In Connecticut, school bus drivers convicted of driving a bus under the influence of alcohol or drugs with passengers under 18 can be fined up to $10,000 and sentenced to up to 10 years in prison, of which they must serve at least four months.
  • In Minnesota, school bus drivers convicted of operating a bus with any alcohol in their system while transporting passengers under 16 are guilty of a gross misdemeanor, punishable by up to one year in prison and a fine of up to $3,000.
  • In Pennsylvania, school bus drivers with a blood alcohol level of .02 or higher within two hours of operating a bus face a minimum penalty, if convicted, of up to two days in jail and a fine of up to $5,000 if they are a first-time offender.
  • In Vermont, school bus drivers who have a blood alcohol level of .02 can be charged with DUI and face penalties of up to two years in prison and up to a $750 fine if convicted.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Jenni Bergal

Jenni Bergal covers transportation, infrastructure and cybersecurity for Stateline. She has been a reporter at Kaiser and the Center for Public Integrity.