FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: April 6, 2018
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New report shows major school bus contractor Durham School Services and its parent company face 25 percent higher crash rate than competitors
Tennessee coalition that has been pressing for changes at Durham takes its concerns to school districts nationwide
(Chattanooga, Tenn.) – Parents, educators, drivers and community leaders in Chattanooga who came together after six children died in a school bus accident are sounding an alarm over the safety practices of the bus provider Durham School Services. After nearly two years of pressing for accountability from Durham and seeing little change, the Stand Up for School Bus Safety Coalition sent a letter Friday, April 6 to school districts that contract with Durham sharing their concerns, along with a new report detailing the company’s high rate of crashes and violations of federal safety standards. They hope school boards will join them in demanding accountability from the company to improve school bus safety for students nationwide.
Durham is the largest U.S. subsidiary of many that are overseen by its parent company, the U.K.-based National Express Group (NEX). Durham and its fellow subsidiaries make NEX the second-largest school bus contractor in the United States, transporting one million children across 400 school districts in 32 states. NEX brought in $311.5 million in profits last year, with more than one third coming from North American operations.
Pastor J.R. Bridgeman has a son who rides Hamilton County school buses. He is the President of Clergy Koinonia in Chattanooga.
“As parents, we put our trust in the hands of the school bus companies transporting our children to and from school every day, and Durham doesn’t deserve our trust,” Bridgeman said. “Even after the unimaginable tragedy in our community, Durham isn’t putting the safety of our children first, even as it brings in record profits. I have a moral obligation to let other parents know about this dangerous company and make sure what happened in Chattanooga doesn’t happen anywhere else, ever again.”
The report is authored by transportation economist Dr. Michael Belzer of Wayne State University. It highlights discrepancies between the safety records of Durham and other NEX subsidiaries compared to their two largest competitors, First Student and Student Transportation, Inc. (STI). The report utilizes two years of data from the Department of Transportation’s Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration. Key findings include:
- Over the past two years, National Express’ school bus operations experienced a 25 percent higher rate of crashes per one million vehicle miles travelled (VMT) compared to competitors First Student and Student Transportation, Inc. (STI);
- The number of federal safety violations per one million VMT incurred by NEX school bus operations was 41 percent greater than its peers;
- Per one million VMT, NEX school bus operations such as Durham racked up three times as many violations considered by federal authorities to be the most severe, such as bald tires or driving without a commercial drivers’ license (CDL).
“NEX and subsidiaries like Durham transport millions of our nation’s children every day, and they have a duty to make safety a priority,” said Dr. Belzer. “Yet from crash rates to violations of federal standards, the data shows that the company is falling behind at the expense of communities, and it faces serious risk factors that continue to exacerbate these safety concerns.”
To inform parents in other school districts, the coalition launched a website, www.safeschoolbus.org. The website gives parents information on Durham’s safety record, tools for concerned parents and community members and opportunities to reach out to school boards. The site also provides a tool for parents, Durham employees and concerned community members to report the problems that they observe and experience with Durham buses. A video with coalition members telling their stories will run as an online advertisement in dozens of districts that use Durham buses to educate communities and encourage more people to join the coalition.
The Stand Up for School Bus Safety Coalition in Chattanooga has been raising concerns about Durham’s sub-standard maintenance, training and reporting mechanisms. They have also called on their local school board to join them in demanding Durham do more to ensure safety of local children. Many members have personal connections to the children who lost their lives in the November 2016 tragedy.
The coalition has documented dozens of safety-related incidents on Durham school buses in Chattanooga since the start of 2018 alone. News reports and the data released today suggest the problems with Durham buses are nationwide. Recent incidents include:
- March 2016: In Dallastown, Pennsylvania, a student was riding in a 15-year-old Durham bus when her foot fell through a rusty floor of the moving school bus, coming within inches of the tire.
- December 2016: In the St. Louis area, 36 students were evacuated before a Durham bus burst into flames on a major interstate highway.
- May 2017: Philadelphia schools have had multiple issues with Durham, including a recent bus crash and delays.
- June 2017: In Keller, Texas, a school superintendent described the culture at Durham’s bus yards as one where workers “get in trouble for calling” in bus issues, stating that “one of his biggest concerns was that drivers shared information, or tried to share it, and it wasn’t getting through.”
- September 2017: Parents in Providence, Rhode Island became outraged over Durham’s poor safety record in its first year of contracting, which included two crashes and multiple incidents of children being dropped off in the wrong town.
- October 2017: In Charleston, South Carolina., elementary school children were evacuated from their bus alongside a major roadway as smoke poured into the cab of the vehicle. Durham admitted this wasn’t the first time the bus had “run into issues.”
“Families and communities are suffering because of Durham’s reckless approach to safety and maintenance,” said Jefferey Evans, Minister and President of the Eastdale Neighborhood Association in Chattanooga. “By joining together we can make a difference, ensure that our children are safe and make sure that Durham is held accountable wherever it does business. We hope more parents, educators, drivers, school board members and administrators join us in standing up to Durham.”
Some school districts are doing just that. Citing continued problems with Durham’s service and questions about the safety of students on the bus, officials in Northwest Independent School District (Justin, TX) announced the decision to contract with a different bus company.
In the coming weeks and months, the expanding coalition will engage with school boards, administrators, drivers, parents and educators nationwide through community events, attendance at school board meetings, outreach to elected officials and more. This weekend, members are in San Antonio to talk with attendees of the National School Board Association Conference about their concerns and distribute copies of the report.
Durham School Services is owned by a large U.K-based multinational corporation, National Express Group (NEX). NEX operates buses in the U.S., Canada, U.K, Spain, Germany, Morocco and Bahrain.
Across the U.S., Durham has stayed under the public’s radar by operating under different names in different school districts, including Petermann, Septran Inc., Trinity Transportation, and The Provider. This practice makes it difficult for school districts to gather comprehensive information on the company’s record on safety.
Durham has been found to violate the terms of its contract with school districts, forcing school districts to assess liquidated damages. In 2017, Charleston County School fined Durham 10 percent of the agreement for a ten month period due to its unreliable service in violation of contract obligations.
Durham drivers report experiencing pressure to operate buses despite concerns over safety and the need of urgent repairs. In response, bus drivers have stepped forward as whistleblowers and have been speaking out and documenting problems they see related to maintenance, proper training and operations. In 2017, a former school bus inspector filed a whistleblower suit against Durham, specifically citing an example of management staff sending a worker home for refusing to drive an unsafe bus.
About the Stand Up for School Bus Safety Coalition
Parents, educators, elected officials, clergy, bus drivers and monitors are coming together with the Stand Up for School Bus Safety Coalition to raise concerns about the dangers of Durham and make sure that the tragic bus accident that led to the loss of six children’s lives in Chattanooga, Tenn. doesn’t happen anywhere else.
Leading up to the 2016 accident, complaints from parents and school officials in the community went unaddressed by Durham, and problems with safety and maintenance persist. The coalition started in Chattanooga, and it is expanding its calls to hold Durham accountable in school districts across the country to make sure every American child who rides a school bus is safe.