DeWine meets group tasked with making Ohio school buses safer

Credit: Avery Kreemer

Credit: Avery Kreemer

Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine met with his new Ohio School Bus Safety Working Group Monday to highlight how the group might aim to make the state’s buses safer for students in the wake of a bus crash last month in Clark County that killed an 11-year-old student and wounded dozens of others.

The group is headed by Andy Wilson, former Clark County prosecutor and currently director of Ohio’s Department of Public Safety and a father whose kids attend Northwestern School District

Northwestern is the district that suffered the bus crash in August after a minivan veered left-of-center and collided with the bus, toppling it on its side. The bus had no seat belts.

Wilson told the 15-member coalition that there have been 6,089 bus crashes recorded in Ohio since 2018, which accounts for less than 1% of the state’s crashes, and only seven had resulted in fatalities before last month — every fatality being that of the driver who hit the bus.

“The bottom line is, Ohio has not had a death on a school bus where a kid was killed as a result of a crash, since 2010. Obviously, that changed on Aug. 22 of 2023, but as you can see, this is clear evidence that our school buses are really the safest mode of transportation that we have here in Ohio to get our kids to and from school,” Wilson said.

DeWine, though, who assembled the coalition soon after the Clark County crash, said that the state needs to explore whether there’s more to be done in terms of safety.

“We know statistically that school buses are a lot safer than putting your child in a car, that is just statistically true,” DeWine said. “But that is not any kind of solace or consolation to the families of Clark County who had children in that bus — who lost a child, who had a child injured, or were just in that bus and went through the trauma of what happened with that bus.”

The Ohio School Bus Safety Working Group will meet at least five times over the next few months to explore topics ranging from bus regulations, bus design and technology, various risk factors that might lead to bus crashes, and bus driver training, testing and licensing.

In December, the group is scheduled to produce a report highlighting its findings and recommendations to the state. DeWine said he hopes and expects the group’s findings to inform and sway lawmakers in the Ohio General Assembly, which has tried and failed to mandate seat belts on public school buses in years past.

“Whatever their specific recommendations are, we have to take those seriously. We have to look at those and, as far as I’m concerned, try to implement them. I think that will have a great deal of weight with the legislature,” DeWine said to reporters after touring a newly-made bus parked outside the state’s Department of Public Safety.

“It’s one thing for someone to come up with some theory or some idea about how we make our buses safer, but if a working group like this comes back after going through at least five hearings, sifting through a lot of data and a lot of evidence, and comes back with a recommendation that school buses should have certain safety requirements in them — it might be seat belts, it might be something else — I think that’s going to carry a lot of weight with the people of Ohio,” DeWine said.

The Ohio Department of Education told the group that about 740,000 public school students ride the bus to and from school — a figure that doesn’t take into account bus use for field trips, sports or other extracurricular events, or the more than 31,000 private school students and 10,000 community school students who are also reliant.

The topic of school bus safety is an intersection of causes for DeWine, who lives about a half an hour from the site of the Clark County bus crash and who has taken on a fight against distracted driving after his daughter died in a 1993 car crash. DeWine said he believes school bus drivers all have “horror stories” regarding distracted drivers on the road. He said he believes Ohio’s recent crackdown on distracted driving will naturally provide some relief to school buses.

Wilson isn’t the only member of the board with connections to Northwestern School District and Clark County. Erin Reed, DeWine’s assistant policy director on public safety, said she’s entering the working group with a local perspective on the crash that has thrown much of Springfield and its surrounding area into mourning.

“As a mother of a son who just started sixth grade this year, as a woman who grew up in Springfield, and whose friends are still raising their families in Springfield, and who’s a sister of a former Northwestern Elementary teacher, this has all hit really close to home,” Reed said. “I say all of that just to make sure it’s clear that I’m committed to doing the best job possible.”

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