The Maine Department of Education is considering new physical fitness requirements for school bus drivers following a federal investigation into a fatal school bus crash in Iowa that killed the driver and a 16-year-old student.

Maine officials also are considering other bus safety requirements, including seat belts on all large school buses and uniform standards for annual driver physicals, that were recommended after crash investigations in other states.

“Obviously safety is an important piece for us,” said Daniel Chuhta, deputy commissioner for the Maine Department of Education. “That’s what is motivating us – the safety and well-being of kids.”

Maine is one of 44 states that don’t require physical performance tests for drivers. The National Transportation Safety Board wrote a letter urging those states to do so after an investigation found a lack of physical fitness testing contributed to the December 2017 crash in Oakland, Iowa.

The only people on the bus, a 74-year-old driver and a 16-year-old student, died after the driver backed into a ditch and the bus engine caught fire as he tried to accelerate out.

The findings of the investigation say that while the driver had an up-to-date medical exam, he also had a history of medical problems, walked with a cane and had a hard time moving.

It is believed the student may have died while trying to help the driver off the bus. The investigation also found the school district that employed the driver failed to make sure its drivers were physically fit after doing away with annual physical performance tests in 2011.

“(The board) believes that requiring school bus drivers nationwide to complete a PPT regularly or when there is a concern about their abilities to meet the physical requirements of the job enhances the safety of students and drivers alike and that further, school systems without such programs are missing a safety opportunity,” the report said.

The six states that require the tests are Arizona, Florida, Indiana, New York, South Carolina and West Virginia, according to the safety board.

Another 10 states allow districts to administer the tests but do not require them. Maine is among the remaining 34 states with no policies on the test.

Chuhta said the department is in talks with other state agencies involved in overseeing school bus drivers and local school districts about how to move forward with the recommendation.

Any changes would take into consideration a national shortage of school bus drivers, a profession plagued by low pay and odd hours and often overlooked in today’s tight job market.

“We’re being cautious and are aware of the fact we need to balance safety with the fact we also need to make sure we have a workforce able to do this work,” Chuhta said.

In states that do require tests, he said, components vary but include a driver’s ability to go up and down stairs or move down the aisle of the bus, and Maine would look at these if it develops its own test.

Adam Mayo, transportation director for Topsham-based School Administrative District 75 and president of the Maine Association for Pupil Transportation, a group of school transportation employees that advocates for training and support, said Thursday he couldn’t say whether the association would support such tests without having a concrete proposal to examine.

However, he said, he supports any initiatives that improve the safety of drivers and students. The general requirements of a performance test “look like a step in the right direction,” he said.

The association has also been pushing the state for two years to adopt uniform requirements for bus driver physical exams, Mayo said.

“A lot of directors feel shopping around would happen if one district had more stringent requirements around, for example, a heart condition,” he said. “They might go to a different district with lesser standards (after getting turned away). This would make it so everyone is on the same page.”

After moving in 2017 to federal physical exam standards for all districts, the state repealed the decision in March 2018 and began letting local school districts or bus companies set physical exam standards.

The annual physical, which must be paid for by the driver’s employer under state law, is one of a handful of requirements for school bus drivers in Maine.

Others include having a valid driver’s license for the appropriate class of vehicle, passing an exam for operating a school bus; and no record of an OUI or license revocation in recent years. The law also requires school bus drivers to be at least 21 years old and does not set a maximum age.

The number of school bus drivers in Maine was not immediately available from the Department of Education on Thursday. Chuhta said it would be difficult to compile because only some of Maine’s bus drivers are direct school employees while others are employees of bus companies contracted by school districts.

Eric Wood, director of transportation for Portland Public Schools, declined to comment Thursday on the state’s proposals, saying the district was too busy with its first day of kindergarten.

In addition to requirements for drivers, Chuhta said the state is looking at requiring seat belts on large school buses, a safety board recommendation that came out of a report investigating separate multi-fatality crashes in Baltimore and Chattanooga in 2016.

“Any time there’s a change you need time to prepare drivers and understand what the requirements are,” Mayo said. “At the same time, anything that helps our students remain safe is our ultimate goal.”

Current Maine law requires passengers in buses equipped with seat belts to wear them, but there is nothing requiring buses to have seat belts.

In 2007, a legislator from York County tried to add Maine to a short list of states that require seat belts on new school buses.

The cost to taxpayers was estimated at more than $11 million annually, or roughly $7,000 to $11,000 per bus. The bill died in committee.

Federal safety officials have encouraged more states to require seat belts, but have stopped short of mandating them.

 

 

 

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