Risky Ride: How Impaired School Bus Drivers Endanger Children

By: - January 22, 2020 12:00 am

A Stateline special report: Schoolchildren in dozens of states have been put in danger by bus drivers allegedly impaired by drugs or alcohol. Still, most states don’t track these cases or know how many school bus drivers have failed random drug or alcohol tests.

Part One: School Bus Drivers Put Kids’ Lives at Risk

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

Police have caught at least 118 drivers operating a school bus while allegedly impaired, and more than a third of the cases involved crashes. Nearly three dozen students have been injured, some seriously. About a third of the cases involved drugs. And many additional impaired school bus drivers have been identified through random drug and alcohol screenings.

Part Two: ‘Every State Should Be Passing A Law to Deal With This’

Parents in Georgia are still outraged that an impaired bus driver carrying their children hadn’t been stopped before she started her route that morning, despite showing up to work with alcohol in her system. Police pulled over the bus after a parent received a panicked text from a child. “My son could have been dead,” one parent told Stateline. “What if she went around the S-curve and the bus had flipped?”

Government officials and transportation safety advocates have considered a variety of strategies to tackle the issue of impaired school bus drivers. Among them: mandating visual check-ins to make sure school bus drivers don’t show signs of impairment, putting ignition locks on school buses, beefing up random testing and analyzing data about impaired school bus drivers.

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.

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Stateline staff
Stateline staff

Stateline’s team of veteran journalists combines original reporting with a roundup of the latest news from sources around the country.