In November 2018, Trista Freeman realized that something was wrong as soon as she went into a school bus. When she came closer to the driver, he smelled of alcohol, as the girl said. The bus began to wag in lanes from the very beginning and pass at the red traffic light. Trista was in a panic when a bus nearly hit a car. There were 26 other high school students on the bus.
"Everyone on the bus was freaked out, yelling for him to stop. I got really scared," recalls 16-year-old Trista.
Trista, her older brother Cody, and other children on the bus began frantically typing SMS messages and calling their parents. Sixteen years old, Rosa Reynolds called her mother and her father, contacted a volunteer firefighter and the police.
Meanwhile, the parents started calling the school transportation department, national addiction hotline, and 911.
Not everybody knows that in this case, it would have also been important to find a 24 hour addiction helpline. The hotline representatives are aware of a lot of difficult cases and will help calm down a drunk or stoned person. They have been taught how to communicate with drunk or stoned people, so every dangerous situation can be solved in a very short period of time. Every call can be confidential, that's why you don't have to waste (sometimes precious) time on verification of your personality.
According to USA Today, there were more than two dozen students in the cabin when Michael Ledbetter, the school driver, was stopped and arrested for drunk driving. It happened in November 2018 in Dayton, Tennessee.
A supervisor contacted the bus driver via a walkie-talkie and made him pull over to the side of the road. An analysis of the sobriety test later showed that the level of alcohol in the blood was 127, three times higher than the allowable limit for commercial drivers.
Trista's mother, Lisa Freeman, said that everybody makes mistakes, but what if he had crashed this bus and hurt the children?
Fifty-nine years old Ledbetter pleaded guilty in July 2019 to driving a bus under the influence of alcohol. The judge sentenced him to 18 months probation and 30 days in prison.
Throughout the country, more than 1,620 schoolchildren in 38 states have been at risk from bus drivers who have been charged for driving under the influence of drugs or while intoxicated or arrested since 2015. Not all children realize from the very beginning there is something wrong and they need to call rehab, parents, or 911.
According to school transportation groups, buses are the safest way for students to get to school. The group representatives note that most drivers would never put children in dangerous situations. Most students were never injured and none of these incidents resulted in the death of a driver or passenger.
Highway safety advocates say the work of drivers who are entrusted with the lives of children should be better controlled by officials. During the last five years, Stateline's analysis of police records, court documents, and news media reports found that more than 118 drivers who drove buses under the influence of alcohol were caught by police. About a third of the cases were related to drugs. As a result of school bus accidents, at least three dozen students were injured and some of them even needed emergency help.
There was a case in New Mexico, with a bus driver who hit banks on the road and then crashed his bus with 25 frightened children in the cabin.
Despite the fact that the fact school districts are aware of some individual cases, there is still impossible for a lot of federal authorities to collect information on school bus drivers with impairments. At the state level, the data isn't usually aggregated, analyzed, or collected.
Stateline contacted 268 agencies (education and transportation departments, state police, and the judiciary) in 50 states to measure the magnitude of the problem.
They found out that only about 11% of the agencies were able to provide any incident data.
In some states, agencies had no cases in their databases. However, Stateline managed to find at least a few. Also, in some cities, the data was incorrect or the police officer checked the wrong box on the form. Most could not make a request to search for such incidents.
Ron Replogle, director of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, said that it has to be changed. States need to collect the data and track it very carefully.
Of course, driving a school bus can not be an easy job. Drivers must be able to handle a vehicle that can weigh up to 33,000 pounds (15 tons), and carry more than 70 students, they need special training and must have a commercial driving license (in a case more than 16 people are located on the bus). They often deal with long shifts, low pay, and underemployment.
The executive director of the National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services Charlie Hood says that every day there are about 480,000 buses that transport more than 25 million students. Only a third of the drivers who work in school districts are employed in private companies that contact with the districts.
According to federal regulations, commercial drivers must be tested for drugs and alcohol before hiring and can also be tested in a random way during their work. After an accident under certain conditions, the tests repeat again. Those bus drivers who fail them temporarily or permanently may lose their commercial driver's license.
Since 2015, in Illinois, more than 55 school drivers lost their driving licenses for failing an alcohol or drug test. 11 others were eliminated from passing the exam.
The director of the school superintendent group is convinced that in large school districts with hundreds of buses, an individual inspection of each driver would be "extremely difficult."
"The problem is that quite often there are cases when no one sees a driver who arrives at check-in," said Robert Berkstresser, a former director of school transport and an expert on commercial buses in San Diego.