A shocking crash in December grabbed headlines – a school bus swerving out of control and flipping on a winding road, the driver arrested on charges she was under the influence of multiple prescription drugs.
But while it was unusual to have an allegedly intoxicated school bus driver in an injury accident, the fact that a Colorado school bus had been in a wreck was not – since 2011, they’ve been involved in more than 1,500 crashes in the state, a 9Wants To Know investigation found.
That’s an average of two bus crashes a day – every day – during the school year.
“That’s absolutely surprising,” said Rebecca Matheson, whose son was injured in a 2011 crash in Adams County. “It’s scary. It’s very scary.”
And that doesn’t include numbers for the last half of 2015, which aren’t expected to be available until late April.
“That is school safety,” said state Sen. Linda Newell, D-Littleton. “That’s precious cargo every single day that we have going to and from our schools. So I think we should look at something like that.”
The 9Wants To Know investigation, conducted with Rocky Mountain PBS News, began with a detailed examination of accident data compiled by the Colorado Department of Transportation. The data included school bus crashes between Jan. 1, 2011, and June 30, 2015 – covering four full school years and half of a fifth.
That data provided an unprecedented look at school bus crashes in Colorado:
- More than 700 of the crashes were deemed by police investigators to be the fault of the bus drivers.
- More than 70 of those crashes caused by the bus drivers resulted in injuries – 377 people in all were hurt, including children on buses and motorists and passengers in vehicles they smashed into.
- Two of the accidents resulted in the deaths of pedestrians – both older people who were hit by buses, one in Loveland, one in Westminster.
All but one of Colorado’s 178 school districts provide bus transportation to students in some form. According to Jennifer Okes, director of school finance at the Colorado Department of Education, more than 363,000 students ride buses on the average day.
“It is a very safe mode of transportation, but clearly we need to continue to do everything we can to review the procedures and policies and rules so that it gets even safer,” Okes said.
Two frightening crashes that occurred in late 2015 illustrated that crashes can happen any time – and that the consequences can be serious.
The first was Nov. 17 outside Durango. A driver who was a week out of training was reaching for a whistle to quiet noisy students when he lost control. The bus drifted off the road, ran down an embankment and rolled over, injuring 10 students. The driver, William Farley, was also injured and was cited with careless driving causing bodily injury.
Then came the Dec. 7 crash outside Lyons involving a driver, Elizabeth Burris, who faces multiple charges amid allegations that she was under the influence of as many as six prescription drugs and unable to pass a roadside sobriety test. Five of the eight students on her bus were hurt, and Burris suffered minor injuries.
She now faces multiple charges – driving while under the influence, two counts of vehicular assault and eight counts of child abuse.
Corbyn Fillweber, 12, and his brother, Tyler Fillweber, 10, were on the bus that day.
“It just seemed like normal. Until we started swerving,” Corbyn said.
Tyler was dozing when the crash started.
“All I saw was Corbyn’s friend flying past me,” he said.
They both walked away unhurt. Their mother, Amanda Archibald, was at her home in Peaceful Valley when a woman came into the family’s resort and said there’d been a bus crash on Highway 7. She was able to reach someone with the school district and was told immediately that no one had died.
“It’s just that gut-wrenching feeling of everything you can imagine going through your head,” she said. “Like well, that’s OK, it wasn’t fatal, but what did happen, you know?”
Following those two crashes, 9Wants To Know set out to find out just how often school buses get into wrecks in Colorado. The investigation was focused on the more than 700 crashes in which the school bus drivers were deemed by investigators to be at fault.
The data provided a detailed look at those incidents.
At least one in five of the wrecks was a result of a serious factor affecting the driver. For instance, in 69 cases a driver who crashed was preoccupied or distracted by passengers, and in 47 accidents a driver’s inexperience played a major role, according to the data.
At the same time, weather conditions – while playing a role in a number of crashes – accounted for only about a quarter of the wrecks.
Buses hitting parked cars accounted for the largest number of the wrecks – but the data also showed that rear-end crashes were the source of the most injuries.
That’s exactly what happened in the accident when Matheson’s son, Will, was injured on Oct. 5, 2011. He was 14 at the time and riding on a bus driven by Sheryl Ritchey, a driver for Adams County School District 12 since the mid-1990s.
Ritchey declined a request from 9NEWS for an interview.
According to the Westminster Police Department report on the crash – among hundreds of pages of documents obtained by 9Wants To Know during its investigation – her bus was traveling 46 mph in a 40 mph zone when she slammed into the back of a Mitsubishi Eclipse that was sitting at a red light. The Mitsubishi’s driver, Alan McCrea, saw the bus in his mirror and hit the accelerator, hoping to get away – but he was too late.
The collision was so violent the Mitsubishi was knocked nearly 295 feet – just about the length of a football field – and McCrea suffered head and neck injuries but recovered.
The bus skidded 64 feet after the crash, and Matheson’s son suffered a gash to his lip and back injuries.
“I was here at home,” Matheson said. “I got a call from the district, actually, and they said that Will’s bus had been in an accident, so I rushed over. … He was a little banged up. He had a bloody lip. We were concerned about his back for a while.”
She said she was told simply that the bus had “bumped” a car at a red light. Now, 4½ years later, she doesn’t recall seeing the car, but after she was shown photographs from the accident scene she was angry.
“I feel like I didn’t get the whole story from the district, which is obviously a problem,” Matheson said. “I don’t know what to do about it now, but yeah, I feel slightly deceived – not slightly – I feel deceived.”
Mark Hinson, chief human resource officer for Adams 12 Five Star Schools, said he could not speak specifically to what Matheson was told at the time of the accident.
“If the parent believes she was misled that’s unfortunate, and we certainly wouldn’t want that to be a practice,” Hinson said.
Hinson said the district has drug and alcohol testing requirements and training regiments that exceed requirements and that it takes other steps, such as forcing drivers to check in face-to-face with a supervisor each day, in the effort to ensure the safe transportation of students.
“We’re transporting about 8,800 kids a day,” he said. “Our buses will complete somewhere between 1.3 and 1.6 million miles on the road a year. And when you think about traffic conditions, congestion, road conditions, weather conditions, it’s not surprising that there are going to be accidents. Our buses are operated by our bus drivers and there’s always human error that’s going to come into play.”
He said the district carefully investigates after accidents and will “levy consequences that we believe are appropriate to the situation.”
Ritchey, the driver in the case of Matheson’s son, had been written up six times over her time with the district.
According to paperwork in her file, which was provided by the district to 9NEWS, she was disciplined for speeding, for picking up a student who wasn’t at a bus stop and failing to use her emergency lights, for getting into a confrontation with parents in a loading zone outside a school, for stopping at a McDonald’s with a student on her bus, for failing to perform a pre-trip safety check, and for allowing a student to crawl up the steps of her bus rather than boarding him in his wheelchair.
But for the crash? She was not disciplined – but district spokesman Joe Ferdani said she was subject to additional training and monitoring.
Matheson said the lack of discipline surprised her.
“Absolutely,” she said. “There should be something. I mean we never heard from the district about this at all – and not even really an apology, not that I’m asking for an apology, but how can there not be anything? No paper? There should have been something done. Absolutely. Yeah, it’s very surprising.”
Hinson said that Ritchey has now been with the district more than 20 years and that the documents in her file show that administrators don’t shy away from disciplining employees.
“This driver has any number of periods of time in employment – two years, three years – with no policy violations or infractions and consistently does a good job,” he said.
Although bus drivers can lose their licenses in certain circumstances – too many tickets in a short period of time, for instance – discipline for any particular accident is left up to each district.
“Normally we don’t get involved in personnel matters with transportation operations,” said the Department of Education’s Okes.
That leaves parents like Archibald “kind of at the mercy of the system.”
While she appreciates the fact there is bus service, and while she believes the bus may be a safer way for her sons to get to school than in her car, she was also surprised to learn that the driver that wrecked had been written up multiple times – for speeding and for repeatedly performing questionable pre-trip safety checks. In one of those instances, mechanics found loose lug nuts on all four wheels of her bus.
“I was waiting patiently for them to come home,” she said of the night of the crash, “just to see them again, and the turmoil that goes on in your head as a mom, because you do so much to keep your kids alive – it’s hard to go through school as they grow up and keep releasing them into other people’s care.”
So how many accidents are too many?
“I think our goal needs to be no accidents,” Okes said. “Obviously that is everybody’s ideal goal, that there would be no accidents. And we continue to evaluate our procedures and our policies and our rules and our regulations, to make sure they are the most safe – they provide the safest transportation.”
Rocky Mountain PBS News reporter Burt Hubbard contributed to this story.