School bus evacuation drills are so simple that you might think that mishaps are entirely avoidable. Recent cases taken on by Ned Einstein and Transportation Alternatives demonstrate that this is not the case. Oversights in training and chain of command can make even these rudimentary drills go terribly astray—and sometimes result in life-changing injuries. In an actual, real-life evacuation, these injuries may be preferable as an alternative to being burned alive or drowned. But they should not occur in a drill.
No one should get hurt in a drill. Generally, in rear door evacuation drills, monitors should be in charge of opening the door or hatch, and giving literal hands-on supervision to the passengers. Children are advised to sit and slide or jump with their knees bent to absorb the shock of the landing, and to jump out rather than up. And two larger, more responsible students on the bus should be positioned on both sides of the rear emergency exit door, adjacent to it, and should try to clasp hands with the evacuees. Plus an adult supervisor (often the school principal or someone designated for this role) should stand directly behind the two student-helpers—supervising them, and occasionally assisting them if and when a large student should come charging off the rear of the bus floor.
The seeming simplicity of these drills belies how methodical those in supervising roles—aides and drivers—must be, as one literal misstep can mean a child needlessly plummeting down. When they are botched, it can result in broken bones, torn ligaments or badly-sprained ankles, as Transportation Alternatives has seen in several cases over the years. These injuries often do not deliver much in a lawsuit. Yet their consequences can pervade the students’ adulthood, where chronic pain and compromised mobility can compromise job opportunities and quality of life. All because of a momentary lapse in attention, a forgotten command or an inexcusable lack of knowledge about appropriate things to do in what is genuinely a very simple procedure.
The pupil transportation community is not wanting for guidelines on how to execute these drills, either. The Pupil Transportation Safety Institute and National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, for example, have clear and accessible documents outlining what should be done—and who is responsible for the performing these simple tasks. This responsibility is often written into the law, as well. In some states, children under a certain age are exempt from contributory negligence provisions. When misfortune befalls student above and below this age in these drills, the first things we have to ask are, “Where were the adults? What were they thinking?”