Excerpt from the OH&S Canada magazine
A judge who headed the inquest into a school bus crash that killed an Alberta girl says all drivers should have to disclose health issues, list medications they’re on and submit to random drug tests.
Judge Bruce Fraser says the death of Kathelynn Occena, 9, highlights the need for more intense scrutiny of drivers before they are hired.
”To those who would be concerned with human rights issues or privacy rights, I say the protection of our children, our richest resource, trumps any such rights,” wrote Fraser in his fatality report released Thursday.
”Those who would be charged with transporting children to and from school must be prepared to satisfy the employer they are capable of safely doing so.”
Kathelynn died in October 2007 when a bus driven by Louise Rogers sideswiped a parked gravel truck on a Calgary freeway and smashed into a light pole. Rogers pleaded guilty to careless driving and was fined $2,300.
The inquiry heard that Rogers had been to hospital on multiple occasions to deal with mental health issues, had attempted to take her own life and was taking medications that included antidepressants and sleeping pills. She did not remember what happened during the accident but speculated she may have fallen asleep.
Fraser said there was no evidence of reckless or bad driving. The bus simply drifted slowly into the lane where the gravel truck was parked and crashed.
”There is no reason to believe she did it on purpose,” the judge said. ”She was either completely distracted or she was in a state of sleep. Ms. Rogers believes she must have fallen asleep. That is the most logical explanation. However, there is no explanation as to why she would fall asleep.”
Fraser said there are no recommendations he can make that would have prevented the accident, but added that the evidence highlights a number of deficiencies in the selection and training of bus drivers and the safety of the vehicles.
He recommends that schools and school bus companies study the feasibility of installing video surveillance cameras on buses that would show how a driver was performing. Fraser also calls on Alberta Transportation to assess the safety of the type of bus that was in the accident — a smaller school bus seating 30 children. He said the fact that the passenger compartment protrudes out past the cab and engine department is a concern.
”In my view the design of this bus is much more dangerous for passengers than conventional school buses that do not have such a protrusion at the passenger compartment.”
Alberta Transportation is reviewing the report.
”This is a tragedy and our hearts go out to the family. Certainly Alberta Transportation will be closely reviewing the fatality inquiry report and the recommendations made by Judge Fraser,” said department spokeswoman Heather Kaszuba.
She said the government already has regulations in place for motorists when it comes to medical fitness and particularly when it comes to commercial or school bus operators. Drivers seeking a licence are required to disclose any medical conditions that could impact their abilities. They also have to submit a medical report.
But there are no mandatory random drug tests, she said.
”We do not have requirements currently for drug testing … Some carriers do have random drug testing programs and that is a choice of the carrier or school board authority.”
The school that hired Rogers, Third Academy International, did not return calls asking for comment on the report.
Kaszuba said school bus safety is a serious concern and the recommendation regarding design will be forwarded to both Transport Canada and the Canadian Standards Association for further review. Drug testing for school bus drivers is not mandatory in Ontario either. But Rick Donaldson, the executive director of the Ontario School Bus Association, said it has been on the radar.
”There’s been a great deal of discussion about that issue as a human rights issue,” he said. ”There isn’t a requirement from the province, but I know that more and more companies are adopting that as a company policy.”
The association represents the owners of about 140 school bus fleets across Ontario.
Donaldson said any concerns about an operator’s fitness to drive a bus are covered when an application for a license is filed.
He said there are a number of rules that could prohibit someone from driving, including a criminal record or too many demerit points. Drivers are also required to be trained in first aid and CPR.
”Our requirements to drive a school bus are very, very stringent. We did a comparison last year on driving a school bus to driving a transit bus and our requirements are significantly higher.”
There are surveillance cameras on many buses in Ontario, said Donaldson, but because of human rights concerns each school board has to first approve a policy allowing them.
The biggest problem remains a lack of qualified drivers, he said.
”It’s a North American problem. It’s probably because it’s roughly four hours a day (and) the pay for a school bus driver is not very good.”
”When you consider all the requirements needed to drive a school bus, you can work at Walmart and make more money with no responsibilities.”
Remember — In Ontario, “ALL Accidents are Preventable”
‘Work’ and ‘Play’ safe.
Daniel L. Beal
CHSEP – Foundation Level
VP & Senior Trainer
HRS Group Inc.