SPECIAL REPORT: School Bus Safety - KWWL - Eastern Iowa Breaking News, Weather, Closings

SPECIAL REPORT: School Bus Safety

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Tragedy on the way to school. 

A school bus fire in Western Iowa is raising concerns about the safety of your child's bus.  

In December, a Riverside district school bus caught on fire during it's morning bus route southeast of Oakland, Iowa. The fire claimed the lives of both the 74-year-old bus driver and 16-year-old student on the bus.The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) released a preliminary report, saying the fire started in the engine compartment and spread to the passenger area.

In Iowa, every single school bus is inspected twice a year. Outside of these inspections, school districts maintain their own daily checks. 

Investigators still do not know why the driver and student didn't get out of the bus. They are still determining whether the bus should have had its electrical system overhauled because of a recall on certain 2005 models.

In Iowa, every single school bus is inspected twice a year. Once in the fall, and another usually in the spring. The results of those inspections for each district, can be found here.

A records request shows six days before the fire, the Riverside school bus was inspected. According to the Des Moines Register, the inspection shows the bus had two mechanical failures-one involving an outside warning light that was malfunctioning and an exit lock signal that was not audible. The bus was pulled from the fleet transporting students but shortly after, it was put back on the road.  

As the NTSB continues to investigate, parents are beginning to question what steps their schools are taking to ensure the safety of their children. 

For many parents, including Waverly mom Emily Neuendorf, the safety of their child's school bus is not a thought that crosses her mind.  

"The bus comes right to our front door," said Neuendorf. "They hop on, they get to school safely and we get to work on time."

Neuendorf has five kids attending the Waverly-Shell Rock school district. 

"Moms have this worry, right? said Neuendorf. "But to kill that mom worry, I just sort of remind myself that I've put my faith into our school district and bus drivers and trust that they're in good hands."

So whose hands are they really in? For the Neuendorf kids, it's Waverly-Shell Rock's Superintendent Ed Klamfoth.

"Every time a bus goes out, there's a pre-trip inspection," said Klamfoth. "We've got an extensive list that they go through to make sure that the lights are working, the flashers are working, the stop arm is working."

During last year's spring inspection, 18 of Waverly's 32 buses passed inspection, just over half. Superintendent Klamfoth says only 27 buses are driven regularly-the rest are spares.

"If they are checking before the trip goes out, It might be soon that they've got to hit the road," said Klamfoth. "If that left turn signal isn't working, they're not going to be taking that bus."

A records request shows that Waverly-Shell Rock had to repair a bus with a missing floor screw, and another whose exit sign was out. A bus that failed inspection had an emergency exit that wouldn't open.

Daily safety checks are designed to catch problems before students ever climb aboard. 

Inside Western Dubuque's district garage, Transportation Supervisor Ernie Bolibaugh demonstrates a typical safety checks.

Western Dubuque is the largest in the state geographically. That's why maintaining their fleet of 97 vehicles is crucial to the safety of their students.

"Before the routes, they go around and make sure the window hatches open, the roof hatches open, the back doors open, and that they're not sticking or anything like that," said Bolibaugh. "We're very confident in the safety of our buses. We'd rather them ride the bus than ride to school with their parents or drive themselves home."

During the second check of last school year, 46 of the 71 buses Western Dubuque uses regularly passed inspection. They had to replace one of four tail light bulbs and fix an exit warning sign that wasn't working. Of the seven that failed inspection, one had a stuck emergency exit, another had a problem with its brakes. 

Unlike most districts, Western Dubuque has a trained service crew. 

"We've got four guys that take care all of our buses," said Bolibaugh. "They all bring the buses in every 2500 miles. Oil changes, filter changes, and all of that too. So we feel real confident in the work that those guys do."

Boibaugh explains the difference between passed v. repair items on state inspections. 

"Most of those items that are flagged are minor, not safety related, so they give us 30 days to repair them," said Bolibaugh. "The 'out of service' items occur at a much lower rate."

The National Highway Safety Administration reports that fatal school bus accidents are actually pretty rare. On average, about 131 people die in school bus related crashes every year. Of those, only 9% are riding the bus. The majority of those killed-72% to be exact, were in another vehicle. The rest were pedestrians or bicyclists.

"Most of the time when kids are injured, or killed it's when they're crossing the street getting onto or off of the bus," said Klamfoth. 

Still, some schools are looking into putting seat belts on buses. Right now, it's up to each state. Only a handful, including California and Texas, have some type of seat belt law.

In Iowa, there is none. However, school districts like Des Moines are trying out lap and shoulder belts.

The Iowa DOT argues studies show seat belts on a bus can actually increase the chance of head and neck injury. That in order to be effective, the belts would have to be adjusted for each and every student.

On a federal level, the National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration recommends belts on buses.

Bolibaugh says there are some factors to consider.

"Cause belts do bring up some problems," said Bolibaugh. "You know if you were in an accident, would it be longer to get people unbuckled and off the bus?"

While he is confident in the safety of their buses already, Bolibaugh says he would not be opposed to trying out a bus with seat belts. 

However, Bolibaugh says adding just one bus with seat belts would cost an extra $10,000 on top of the $85,000 cost of a new bus.

It's a challenge Waverly-Shell Rock also faces.

"Financially, that can be a struggle, because you're spending over a hundred thousand dollars for a bus each time," said Klamfoth. "So what you try to do is keep them as current as you can. Get them on a rotation. But, those buses that you have, you got to take care of."

Currently, there is no discussion this legislative session in Iowa on seat belts being required on buses.

Take a look below at the statewide school bus inspection data between 12/2/14 and 1/3/18. 

Tonight on the KWWL News at 6: What steps are schools taking to ensure the safety of your child? 

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