Safety is legacy of bus tragedy

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Editorial: May 13, 2013

ISSUE: Reactions to the bus crash
Lasting legacy of safety improvements

Signs standing on the shoulders of Interstate 71 in rural Carroll County mark the site of one of our country’s most deadly bus disasters. Flowers, crosses, messages and other items can be seen around this sign, left as tokens to honor the lives lost on this stretch of highway.

Late on that May 14, 1988, night, a fiery collision involving a pickup truck in the wrong lane operated by a drunken driver and a church bus packed with children forever changed the lives of so many more.

Tuesday marks the 25th anniversary of bus crash. A community will gather at Radcliff’s North Hardin High School for a public service to remember those students and adult chaperones who perished returning from a trip to King’s Island amusement park.

Many will be present. But some likely will be unable to attend, still physically and emotionally scarred as a result of the horrific crash and its aftermath.

While those most closely connected to the crash never can forget that evening, nor the days, months and even years that have followed, a generation has been positively impacted as a result of what happened that night a quarter century ago.

Students today — some the same age as those Radcliff Middle School, J.T. Alton Middle School and North Hardin High School students on that ill-fated former school bus — most likely never give thought to the safety improvements that now are commonplace on school buses because of the crash.

Adults on the roadway today — some the same age as the three adults from Assembly of God Church who died alongside the children in their care that evening, or of the parents and grandparents who franticly sought out any word on the condition of their children and grandchildren that night — likely have little understanding of how alcohol laws were strengthened following the disaster.

But important and lasting improvements did come.

The tireless efforts of those who survived and findings from a National Transportation Safety Board report following a lengthy investigation into the crash changed manufacturing standards, regulations and operating requirements, greatly improving school and church bus safety.

Where the 1977 Ford B-700 bus involved in the crash only had a front entrance door and smaller rear door partially obstructed by a rear seat, today’s buses must have nine functional exits including more accessible front and back doors, two roof-top escape hatches, a side emergency door exit and four breakaway escape windows. These would have saved the lives of many that night.

Where that bus had a 60-gallon gasoline tank positioned outside the frame of the vehicle and behind the bus door, today’s buses are required to have slow-leak diesel fuel tanks, positioned inside a more structurally sound frame and surrounded by a protective cage. Had that bus been so equipped, perhaps all 67 passengers that night could have walked away unharmed.

Where that bus had highly flammable polyurethane foam seat padding and flammable floor runners, today’s are mandated to contain high-backed seats with extra flame-retardant cushions and padding, floor and panel coverings of flame-retardant materials and highly visible reflective tape surrounding all emergency exits. Many states also amended bus seating capacity regulations, as well. Such features that night would have bought more precious time for escape.

Ramifications of the crash also extended to toughen alcohol laws related to DUI.

Where the legal limit on blood alcohol concentration in 1988 was 0.10 – Larry Mahoney, the driver of the pickup truck who hit the bus that night had a 0.24 BAC – eventually were lowered to 0.08.

Equally important, the public’s view and tolerance for drunken driving were forever changed, too.

Karolyn Nunnallee and Janey Fair, mothers who lost daughters in the crash, channeled their grief and mourning into tenacious effort with Mothers Against Drunk Driving.

Nunnallee eventually became president of the national organization and Fair became its vice president before succumbing to cancer in 2008. Through their efforts and those of MADD and other anti-drunk and impaired driving organizations, alcohol-related deaths on the nation’s highways have curbed in very measured ways.

Those who lost loved ones that tragic night would give anything to turn back the hands of time and have their children, grandchildren, husbands and wives back. Nothing can or will replace them.

But the resulting improvements to highway safety that came about because of their loss, are among the lasting legacies of their impactful, although brief, time among us.

This editorial represents a consensus of The News-Enterprise editorial board.