A 17-year-old high school student died, and 12 other schoolchildren suffered serious injuries, when the school bus in which they were riding crashed into a BNSF freight train near the town of Larimore, North Dakota (ND), on the afternoon of January 5, 2015. Although the deadly accident occurred more than half a country away, it has relevance to school transportation in North Carolina, which itself has seen several wrecks that hurt and killed kids on buses and at bus stops during the current school year.
The North Dakota crash occurred at a railroad crossing near the intersection of 36th Street Northeast and Grand Forks County Road 4, about 30 miles outside of the city of Grand Forks. According to police and multiple news reports, the bus driver, who also taught at the middle and high schools many of the children attended, drove onto the tracks and into the path of the train without stopping. The grade crossing is marked by crossbucks and stop signs, but it lacks warning lights and gates.
The driver also lost his life, while the two BNSF train crew members escaped the collision without injury. The nature of the children’s injuries were not disclosed, but it is believed that everyone who did not die at the scene will survive.
On the same day as the tragedy in North Dakota, two school buses wrecked in head-on collisions in North Carolina’s Union County, southeast of Charlotte. The more serious of the incidents, on Uniontown-Indian Town Road, involved the bus driver running off the side of the rural highway, over correcting and crossing into oncoming traffic. A total of 22 children sustained injuries, and the driver was cited for losing control of her vehicle.
Each of the accidents highlights these three important safety lessons:
- Crossing tracks while a train approaches must be made as difficult as possible. Regardless of cost, communities, railroads and track owners should cooperate to install and maintain automated warning systems and gates at all grade crossings.
- Bus drivers should stop at all rural railroad crossings every time to look and listen for trains. Laws require this in most places, but some drivers clearly ignore the rule.
- Bus drivers must do their jobs as close to perfectly as possible at all times. That seems unfair, and it’s true that some 99 percent of school bus trips end without incident. However, the smallest mistakes can result in great tragedy.
My condolences go out to the family and friends of the teen who lost her life, along with my wishes for full and quick recoveries to the young people injured.