CHARLOTTE, N.C. — More than a dozen Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools students were taken to the hospital Wednesday after a school bus was involved in a head-on crash in south Charlotte.
On Thursday, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department documentation revealed the driver of a dump truck told investigators he fell asleep while driving. The preliminary CMPD crash report said the dump truck then crossed over the center line striking the school bus and another vehicle head-on.
Medic confirmed 16 total people were hurt, including 14 students. All of the students suffered non-life-threatening injuries, according to Medic. Atrium Health later confirmed that all students were discharged Wednesday.
The driver of the dump truck and school bus were both hospitalized with serious injuries. The driver of the third vehicle was not injured.
The crash happened around 6:30 a.m. on Sharonbrook Drive near the intersection with Sharon Road West and South Boulevard. CMS confirmed Bus 222 serves South Mecklenburg High School.
An official from the Charlotte Fire Department said it took about 30 minutes to free the bus driver and an hour to get the dump truck driver out of the vehicle. An operations supervisor for Medic said both drivers were conscious and stable upon their rescue.
According to the CMPD report, police determined the dump truck driver committed a violation by crossing the center line into opposing traffic. As of Thursday, no criminal charges against the driver had been announced.
The driver responsible for the crash works for Atlantic Coast Contractors.
Atlantic Coast Contractors is a sewer rehabilitation company based in Denver, North Carolina. The company's president Matthew Butler sent a statement:
"On Wednesday May 11th, an Atlantic Coast Contractors employee was involved in a traffic accident with a CMS bus and another vehicle. We are working with the authorities to determine details about what happened and next steps. The safety and wellbeing of everyone involved is our highest priority, and our thoughts are with all who were injured. We are deeply saddened by these events, and our sympathy and prayers go out to all of the families that have been affected."
Butler said the driver of the truck is in serious condition.
School bus crash
North Carolina does not require seat belts on these school buses
Ken Trump, the president of National School Safety and Security Services in Cleveland, Ohio, said although bus drivers have difficult jobs, buses are safe on the whole.
"When you consider that school bus drivers have to deal with not only driving the bus in a very distracted-driving world and manage the behavior on the bus," he said. "They're very safe places overall.”
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), sets national standards for school bus safety. It requires three-point seat belts on school buses weighing less than 10,000 lbs. but allows individual states to decide whether to require seat belts on larger school buses.
North Carolina does not require larger buses to be equipped with seatbelts.
Tom Vitaglione, a senior advisor for NC Child, chaired a task force studying the safety of school buses in 2008. The report was presented to the North Carolina General Assembly asking whether adding seatbelts would keep children safer in North Carolina.
The report concluded lap or shoulder belts on school buses would only marginally make school buses safer. Additionally, the costs of introducing belts would be about $6.7 to $10.5 million per year.
"The industry told us that to retrofit a bus with lap belts and safety belts would actually be unsafe, they wouldn't guarantee it," Vitaglione said. "So you really have to go to new buses.”
School bus had a safety recall
Documents obtained by WCNC Charlotte showed the seats of the school bus involved in Wednesday's crash were recalled in 2019 but not fixed at the time of the crash.
The seats on that particular bus were believed to have been manufactured with "styrene blocks that may not provide sufficient impact absorption in certain specific areas around the steel seat frame of the back support," according to the recall.
The seat cushioning is supposed to help absorb the impact of a crash.
The recall says not getting these seats fixed increases the risk of injury during a crash.
In response to the recall, a Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools spokesperson told WCNC Charlotte Thursday:
"CMS is aware of the recall issued in 2019 for certain school buses and is waiting on Carolina Thomas, a division of Daimler Trucks North America, to schedule service to resolve the issue. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration deemed the school buses involved in the recall safe to operate as normal until repairs could occur."
In their statement, CMS also said they are awaiting information from Carolina Thomas to determine the number of CMS school buses impacted by this recall.
WCNC sent a request for comment to Daimler Trucks North America and did not hear back by the editorial deadline.
NHTSA says school buses are safe
The NHTSA concludes students are about 70 times more likely to get to school safely when taking a bus instead of traveling by car. That’s because of how buses are constructed.
“The important piece is the compartmentalization," Vitaglione said.
Buses are designed to protect passengers through compartmentalization, which includes closely spaced seats and high, energy-absorbing seatbacks.
“Looking at the bus after the crash is quite scary. But no student had a life-threatening injury," Vitaglione said. "And that's the kind of thing that we found, we found two deaths from an enormous crash in 1991. And then none since then, on school buses. And it's very rarely having even a life-threatening injury.”
The Associated Press reported in May 1991, a dump truck smashed into a school bus, killing three junior high school students and injuring 12 others in Mecklenburg County.
The NHTSA reports on average six students die in school bus crashes each year, compared to approximately 2,000 children who are killed in motor vehicle crashes.
In 2016, the state gave local districts a resource guide to develop and design a seatbelt program. They cited a change in the language coming from NHTSA.
Nonetheless, experts and industry leaders say current buses without seatbelts are still the safest way for your child to get to and from school.
“We want to support our drivers who deal with a very challenging situation both on the road and managing behavior on the bus," Trump said. "And we want to make sure that our kids come home at the end of the day in the same safe condition that we send them off to school with in the morning.”
Flashpoint is a weekly in-depth look at politics in Charlotte, North Carolina, South Carolina, and beyond with host Ben Thompson. Listen to the podcast weekly.
SUBSCRIBE: Apple Podcasts || Spotify || Stitcher || Google Podcasts
All of WCNC Charlotte's podcasts are free and available for both streaming and download. You can listen now on Android, iPhone, Amazon, and other internet-connected devices. Join us from North Carolina, South Carolina, or on the go anywhere.