It’s Tuesday, May 3rd, 2022 the Derby is on Friday. There is a hum of exhaustion in the air as the usual rumble of the school bus takes us on its route. A light rain wet the roads during the night into the early hours. I take my normal seat, right across from the emergency exit, and I talk with my friend, an upperclassman, discussing upcoming finals and AP tests and summer plans. Soon after mentally reviewing for my final, I start to doze off, eyes fighting to stay open.
As we round a bend (on I-64), I get shocked awake, unsure what is going on. I feel a jerk as I see the bus driver yelling as I see our bus go off the lane, off the shoulder, down into the grassy depression off the side of the road and even further into the wooded brush. I put my arms out in a defensive position and squeezed my eyes shut. After that came pandemonium.
It has been more than a year since the crash happened, but the memories do not absolve themselves easily. School buses are deemed one of the safest vehicles and garner necessary respect on the roads since their passengers are so precious. However, as evidenced by numerous recent crashes—mine included—accidents still happen. During the formative moments of students’ lives, many forms of distress may go unnoticed.
Based on data collected by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), from 2011-2020, there were 1,009 fatal school-transportation- related crashes, 113 of which were passengers on school transportation. This however, only accounts for about 10% of the total number of deaths, the largest being the occupants of vehicles other than the school bus. This is in-part due to the strict safety standards school buses must adhere to in order to limit injuries in the case of accidents. They manage this through “compartmentalization” with closely spaced seating and energy absorbing seat backings. So, even without the use of seatbelts, school buses are meant to protect their passengers.
Despite the relatively low chances for death as a passenger, bus crashes still do happen. According to data in the Kentucky Annual School Bus Incident Report, there were 1,038 bus-related incidents in the 2021-2022 school year, self-reported by school districts. When incidents do occur, there needs to be an established, strong support system to help students recover.
“The first thing I heard was screaming. There was so much screaming…” M., a classmate who was on the same bus and is going by an initial to protect their privacy, told me. “When I think back to the crash, I remember that a lot. There was a middle schooler screaming ‘We’re going to die, this is the end.’”
Personally, I opened my eyes to find my body aching and my nose and mouth bleeding, so much so that I had to wipe away all the blood with my mask. The bus had turned around 180 degrees so that the driver’s end was facing the road we just came from, and it had tipped onto its side. The tail end of the bus had been smashed into the trees lining the side of the road. I shudder to think what would have happened if people’s windows were not up, if the glass did not form a protective barrier between the woods and the students. Many students were asleep during the moment of the crash and woke up to disaster.
“I look to my right, and my friend is just covered in blood,” M said. “She was stuck under a seat. And her head went through a window.” The student was screaming for their mom, M. recounted, and everything smelled of wet grass and blood.
Thankfully, we were on a busy highway so there were helpful civilians and first responders at the scene of the crash within minutes. But weeks after the crash I suffered from aches in my body, and I’ve heard other students had to go through much worse. For months after the crash, I still cringe whenever I’m in a vehicle and it stops suddenly. M. also described similar aftereffects, feeling scared when a bus slows down too much or swerves.
In the weeks following, I replayed that moment of the bus crash over and over again in my mind. Two days after the crash, I came into school and took two AP tests. The week afterwards I was in Atlanta, Georgia for an international science fair. I was both appreciative and shocked to find that in the days after I came back from the accident, people seemed to have “gotten over it”. Appreciative because I didn’t want to make it a big deal, shocked because it was an event that shaped my life. But it wasn’t a universal experience, so eventually people lost interest.
The news reported that no one had died, that no one was gravely injured, and that was it. That was the end of the story. Reading some of the news articles, it seems our bus crash was somehow exemplary. An example that goes to show how far bus design has come since the horrific Prestonsburg bus crash of 1958 and Carroll County bus crash of 1988 (two of the bus crashes with the highest mortality rate in the US history). In November 2022, a school bus crash in Kentucky sent the driver and eighteen students to hospitals with various injuries. This back-to-school season, five Jefferson County Public School buses were involved in crashes on August 21st. While crashes might range in severity, for some students, it sticks with us whether we acknowledge it or not.
There are many preventative safety measures for school buses, from extensive driver training to strict laws surrounding the vehicles. According to the Transportation Research Board of the National Academies, there is a bus accident rate of “0.01 per 100 million vehicle-miles traveled,” the lowest compared to any other mode of fueled transportation. However, accidents are sometimes inevitable. How students are treated and addressed—both physically and mentally—should remain a top priority.
In the aftermath, Jefferson County Public Schools attempted to provide support for the students impacted. But for many of us, that endeavor didn’t feel followed through upon.
One student described having group therapy in school for the crash, but the counselor told them to come back at a later date because of unrelated protests that happened the same day.
“We never got a call back,” they explained. I thought [the school district] was here to support us, but one obstacle came and it was the end of the school year, so I guess they just quit.”
The recovery time spent afterwards is always important, as it’s essential to processing the events we went through and how to best manage the period of life that comes afterwards. This cannot be achieved without true, sustained, dedicated systems. However, other students expressed concerns that those systems weren’t in place.
“I read quite a few articles, and JCPS definitely downplayed it a lot,” said Thunvi, a then-senior at DuPont Manual High School. “They said students got hurt and yes, no one died, but nevertheless it was an awful, traumatic experience.”
“What we went through was real and they just tried to push it under the rug,” M. said. “It’s so frustrating to me.”
There needs to be more attention paid to students, including following up with us and providing resources. I believe it is vital for the school administration to assist students who go through such harrowing experiences and provide a stable platform from which we can reestablish ourselves on. The biggest thing I learned from this experience is how to truly sympathize with others in disastrous situations. I feel a small tug of connection and a remembrance of my own trauma when I watch a disaster on the news. It’s easy to recall when I was just watching, as someone who sees disasters occur but who was never directly touched by catastrophe. This sudden reversal is a position anyone may find themselves in.
“In a way, I have a bond with the people in the bus crash,” Kulkarni said. “It was something that connected me to them. In a weird way I made new friends because of it. We shared that common traumatic experience and were able to talk about it with each other.”
Interested in this topic? Read student opinions on JCPS bus transportation here.