As the Mississippi Highway Safety Patrol continues to investigate a fatal accident involving a Choctaw County school bus and an 18-wheeler, Columbus and Starkville officials said they haven”t dealt with major bus accidents in recent years — due in equal parts to training and good fortune.
Even with the best training, accidents can happen, officials said.
Tuesday, a school bus transporting Ackerman High School seniors from a trip to Oxford hit head-on with an 18-wheeler after another bus and the rig sideswiped each other.
Coach and teacher Steven Moss, 37, and special education teacher Phyllis Graham, 53, were killed in the accident, as was the truck driver, Gary Bailey, 54.
MHP has yet to determine what caused the tragic accident on Highway 8 in Calhoun County, and the investigation could take weeks.
Drivers receive specialized training and go through a lengthy process before they can transport students. In Columbus and Starkville schools, there have only been a handful of collisions over the years and all minor.
“There”s quite a bit of preliminary stuff that has to be done to get them to the point where they are able to drive (school buses),” said Mike Waters, of Waters Transportation, which oversees transportation services for Columbus Municipal School District.
Those applying for a position as a driver must have a commercial license with proper certifications and undergo a background check, drug and alcohol screening and a physical, Waters noted. Waters also offers 1 1/2 to two hours of training per month.
School districts must adhere to state and federal mandates, regarding driver training and certification.
In the Starkville School District, drivers are employed by the district.
“The same driving precautions are taken any time a bus cranks up,” said Judy Couey, superintendent of Starkville schools. “Recommended safety prescribed by Mississippi Department of Public Safety and the Mississippi Department of Education Office of Safe and Orderly Schools Transportation Division is followed by all bus drivers.”
Training programs “talk about all aspects” of driving, including defensive driving, safe backing, railroad crossing, safe bus stops, emergency evacuations and mirror adjustments, Waters said.
“It”s a very comprehensive program that would have included safe-driving techniques,” he added.
During times when roads may be icy, Waters suggests school cancellation.
“Our state”s not prepared to handle that as, say, a northern state where they have a lot of snow and ice,” he noted.
Starkville schools have not had a major wreck in the past 15-16 years, Couey said, noting the district has one to three “minor fender benders” per year.
Columbus schools have had accidents with “insignificant damage” and “without injury or physical stress to students,” Waters said.