City's Public School Buses Were Involved in 1,700 Accidents Last Year

By Jill Colvin on December 10, 2012 7:10am 

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NEW YORK CITY — New York City school buses were involved in 1,700 accidents last year — an average of nearly five per day, DNAinfo.com New York has learned.

The accidents — all of which were caused by the public school bus drivers, Department of Education records show — resulted in more than 900 injuries, according to safety records obtained through the state’s Freedom of Information Law.

The revelation follows a slew of bus crashes involving special-needs students across the city.

But the DOE would not disclose how many of those injured last year were special-needs students, because it does not keep track of what type of buses are involved in crashes. 

Nor does the DOE keep records of how many of the injured were students and how many were other passengers, pedestrians or drivers, DOE spokeswoman Marge Feinberg said.

Feinberg said that any accident involving a school bus is “concerning.”

“We treat all accidents of equal importance and are constantly working on improving our vendors' accident-reduction practices,” she said.

The records also reveal a troubling pattern about relative bus contractor safety, as some contractors log far more accidents than others, regardless of the amount of routes they drive. The city currently contracts with more than 50 different private bus companies who bid on particular travel routes.

Allied Transit Corp., the numbers show, was the most dangerous provider, with 19 accidents logged last year, even though it only drove 34 routes in the 2011-'12 school year — a ratio of more than one accident for every two routes.

That’s more than 18 times the rate of Tufaro Transit, whose buses were involved in just three accidents, despite having a similar number of travel routes.

Routes can vary in length, and the DOE would not specify how many students were assigned to each route or how many miles they covered.

Amboy Bus Company, the city's largest provider, logged the most accidents — 408 in 2011. The company ran 1,406 routes last year, records show.

Other companies that logged large numbers of accidents last year included Logan Transportation System Inc., with 120 accidents, and Little Richie, with 104 accidents.

Roughly 170,000 students are eligible for school bus transportation, including 57,000 special-needs students and 83,000 general-education students, according to the DOE.

But the DOE and bus company officials cautioned that, because of stringent reporting standards, the city records everything from minor fender-benders with zero damage to fatal crashes in its accident count.

"We report every accident, even if it's nothing,” said Marta Rivera, a loss coordinator who oversees insurance claims and accidents at the Brooklyn-based Jofaz Transportation Inc., one of the city's largest providers, which logged 90 accidents last year.

She said the typical accident may involve a bus mirror nicking a double-parked car as it tries to turn down a narrow street.

The DOE’s accident data includes only crashes in which the bus driver was deemed at fault, Feinberg said.

Carolyn Daly, a spokeswoman for Atlantic Express/Amboy Bus, said many more — 60 percent of accidents — were found to not be caused by driver fault.

Daly also noted that the city’s 6,700 buses log nearly 2.5 million trips traveling back and forth at least 180 days a year. Given the volume of traffic, she said the accident ratio drops to an estimated .0006 accidents per trip a year.

“New York City has the safest school bus record in the nation,” she insisted. “This industry does a remarkable job. I’m not sure why you’re focusing on the negativity.”

But the numbers raised alarm among advocates and public school parents, who have expressed deep frustrations over the years about the city's busing system, including claims of special-needs students forced to spend hours on buses and illogical routes that force kids to make stops at numerous schools.

“Wow,” said Crystal Alfano, a mother of two young special-needs students who ride the bus back and forth to school every day, when she learned about the numbers.

She said she’s had constant issues with the city’s busing system, including witnessing her 5-year-old son’s minibus speeding over the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge.

Margaret DePaula, a transportation advocate and retired special-education teacher, has been lobbying the DOE for years to improve bus safety, including trying to force the DOE to begin providing headrests to children in wheelchairs to prevent injuries.

“They’re basically strapped down by their wheels — and that’s it,” said DePaula, 67. “It’s just horrendous. There should be a law about this.”

She said that when she contacted the head of the DOE's office of pupil transportation years ago, she was told, “It’s a shame, but it’s cheaper for New York to pay for the one or two kids who die every year than it is to pay for the headrests.”

The records also show that, despite parents' complaints, the number of school bus accidents has remained relatively steady over the past five years, with little fluctuation year-to-year.

However, the numbers show that injuries were cut in half last year, dropping from 1,796 in 2010, to 912 last year. There were also zero fatalities in 2011 for the first time in five years.

Between 2000 and 2009, 1,386 people nationwide died in school transportation-related crashes — an average of 139 fatalities per year, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

The DOE, activists and industry members said they weren't sure what was behind the drop, but Indra Fouche, the vice president of Rainbow Transit Inc., noted that last year's winter was especially mild, helping to improve conditions on the road.

“While we have been working closely with our vendors on a regular basis to institute risk management practices in order to reduce accidents where possible, we can’t fully explain the declines," DOE spokeswoman Feinberg said.

City Councilman Robert Jackson, chairman of the Council’s education committee, said he was pleased to see that the numbers of injuries had dropped — and hoped it was a sign of safer driving on the part of bus drivers and others on the road.

“Obviously, when you’re transporting children, you’re supposed to be driving safely, following the rules, not trying to run the lights,” he said.

Still, he said he was frustrated the DOE does not keep more comprehensive records that could provide crucial clues about when and why accidents are happening and who is being hurt.

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