Safety – It’s Our Number One Priority

As the new school year is approaching many of our terminals are a hive of activity.  Whether it is doing preventative maintenance services and checks on our school bus fleets, training new drivers or reviewing policies and procedures with our returning staff, the common theme is the importance of safety in our industry.

A school district in Merced, California ran a training session in 2011 where they reviewed a crash that happened in 1931 and claimed the lives of seven students and the driver (see the full article here).  While the technology we use may be different today, there are a lot of items that our drivers deal with every day.  The training session brought in one of the few remaining survivors (he was 88 in 2011) from the crash to allow the drivers to hear first-hand what such a crash is like and how it affects the survivors.

On May 7, 1931, driver Floyd Cregger was transporting a total of 57 passengers from several elementary schools in Merced.  Cregger had a clean 5-year record of driving with no accidents and he had driven over the rail crossing more than 3,500 times.  Neighbours near the site told investigators that they had never seen Cregger make the crossing without coming to a complete stop.  The statement Cregger made before he passed away indicated that he had stopped 10 feet back of the crossing before proceeding.  He said that the wigwag signal was not swinging, and he did not see the train until it hit the bus (the bus had been recently serviced and was in good condition – a fact verified afterwards by crash investigators).

The key take-away from his statement was that he was not accustomed to expect a train at the time he crossed the tracks – the freight train was not running according to schedule that day.  How many times have any of us relied on what we consider to be the “normal schedule” while driving or other activities?  Most of the time our instincts are correct and nothing bad happens.  However, we all are carrying precious cargo and it is imperative that we always follow all safety procedures.  The responsibility for this starts with us as leaders – if we are not leading by example then we should not be surprised when our employees take shortcuts.

The bus had only picked up its last passenger seven minutes before the accident.  After stopping 10 feet in front of the crossing (California law at the time), the driver had just reached the middle of the crossing when it was struck in the middle, pushing it 40 feet down the tracks before it rolled over.  The bus had been overloaded with 57 students (there were seats for 35).  Survivor Jesse Gaines recalled hearing the screams and cries of the other children on the bus – seven of them died because of the crash.

The fireman on the train stated that he was watching the bus as it was moving towards the crossing.  He jerked the whistle as the bus was a mere 20 feet away.  The engineer stated that the bell on the engine had been ringing for 2 miles before the crossing and that he was only going 15 miles per hour at the time.

One of the passengers said that he saw the wigwag signal moving.  This fact was reinforced by numerous witnesses, including the father of an 8-year old passenger who saw his daughter fly out of the bus and land 30 feet away.  The girl was seriously injured but did survive.

The key lesson here is that regardless of which sector of the industry that we operate in – school buses, motor coaches, activity vehicles or contracted public transit – our driver’s attention to their surroundings and to following proper procedures is crucial to ensuring that our passengers get home safely every time they use our services.  In this case the driver assumed that there would not be a train passing at that time and that blinded him to the warning signals – the wigwag, the bell and even the whistle.  Driver inattention was the root cause of this tragedy, at the cost of 8 lives!  Imagine being that father, watching YOUR child fly through the air because someone was not paying attention.

Every day, each member of our teams has an obligation to make the safety of our passengers our number one job.  This crash from 87 years ago acts as a stark reminder of why that is the case.  Our drivers can’t control the actions of the other members of the driving public (as proven by the April crash that claimed the lives of 16 members of the Humboldt Broncos), but we can all make certain that we do everything in our power to make preventable accidents not happen.

Stay safe and bring them all home.