50ºF

School bus drivers monitored for safety

Crashes, traffic violations reported to school districts monthly

ORANGE COUNTY, Fla. – The weather was clear when an Orange County school bus headed for Bridgewater Middle School picked up a group of students at the Mystic Pointe Apartments in February 2014.

[WEB EXTRAS: Safe Driver policies for Orange County bus drivers | Seminole County | Request: Florida Driver History Record ]

As the bus driver pulled out of the apartment complex near Walt Disney World and attempted to make a left turn onto County Road 535, a horn from an oncoming car honked.  The bus suddenly stopped.  Then students on board the bus felt a violent jolt.

The bus had driven into the path of an oncoming PT Cruiser, which slammed into the left side of the school bus, according to a Florida Highway Patrol crash report.

"The car went under the bus and everybody turned," said Nydia Booker, a 12-year-old student.  "Everybody was screaming. Everybody was worried. Everybody was going just super crazy."

Of the 42 students on board the bus, nine were taken to local hospitals with very minor injuries, including Booker.

"The bus driver freaked out," said Booker. "We were all trying to figure out if everybody was OK."

FHP issued school bus driver Linda Rickerson a citation for failing to yield the right-of-way. On the crash report, a trooper described the school bus driver as "inattentive".

Three weeks later, Rickerson paid the $164 fine. She did not contest the citation.

Despite the school bus driver reportedly causing a crash that injured students, Rickerson was allowed to remain working behind the wheel of a school bus.

Orange County Public Schools, like most other Florida school districts, regularly monitors the driving history of certain employees, including school bus drivers.

At least 61 of OCPS's 980 school bus drivers received traffic citations in Orange County in 2014, court records show.  Those include violations committed by employees on-the-job and while driving their personal vehicles after-hours.

Every week, the Florida Department of Education provides school districts with a report showing any changes to an employee's motor vehicle record. The reports indicate whether the employees have been involved in crashes or received traffic citations.

Under Orange County Public School’s "Safe Driver Plan", school bus drivers are assessed points based on their driving history.  

Violations such as improper backing, improper lane change, careless driving, or speeding less than 15 miles an hour over the limit earn drivers three points. Drivers are assessed four points if they're cited for causing a crash or speeding more than 15 miles an hour over the limit. Failing to yield at a railroad crossing will earn drivers six points, and they receive ten points if caught driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs.

Discipline for school drivers is determined by the amount of points they receive over a two-year period:

• 2-3 points = verbal reprimand
• 4-5 points = written reprimand
• 6-7 points = one day unpaid suspension
• 8-9 points = three day unpaid suspension
• 10-13 points = five day unpaid suspension
• 14 points or more = dismissal

A school bus driver could also face dismissal if they receive 10 points within a single year.

At the time of Rickerson’s 2014 school bus crash, she had a remarkably clean driving history. State driving records independently obtained by News 6 indicate Rickerson had received no traffic citations in more than a decade, including speeding tickets.

Rickerson, who has been employed with OCPS for nearly 25 years, also had relatively few problems at work.

In 2010, OCPS found Rickerson at fault for hitting another school bus, and the following year she hit a trailer, district records show. Neither incident caused property damage, records suggest.

Following an investigation into Rickerson’s school bus crash on CR 535, district officials determined she caused the accident and assessed her 4 points under the “Safe Driver Plan." She had no prior points on her record.

Based on the policy, OCPS issued Rickerson a letter of reprimand, along with a written directive ordering her to comply with district policies, adhere to motor vehicle laws, and use caution when making left turns.

When contacted by News 6, Rickerson declined to speak about the crash.

Another Orange County school bus driver still employed by the district has been suspended from his job twice after causing five crashes over a five-year period.

In 2009, Altamonte Springs police cited David Jensen for careless driving after he crashed his personal truck into another car near the Altamonte mall.  Jensen blamed the crash on “bumper to bumper traffic”, records show. OCPS later issued him a written reprimand and put 4 points on his internal record.

Less than two years later, Jensen crashed his school bus into a stopped car as he attempted to drive around it, records show, causing nearly $1,500 in damage to the car and $222 in damage to the bus.  After adding an additional 3 points to Jensen’s record, the school district suspended him for one day without pay.

In April 2014, Jensen caused more than $600 damage to the roof of his bus after driving under an awning outside Windy Ridge K-8 school, records show.  Since it has been more than two years since his last traffic infraction, the school district issued 3 points to Jensen’s internal record and gave him a verbal reprimand.

Five months later, OCPS transportation officials assessed Jensen 1 more point after he struck a stop sign and broke a window on the bus while making a sharp right turn at an intersection, according to OCPS records.  Under district policy, 4 points in less than two years dictated a written reprimand.

Less than two months after that incident, Jensen was found to be at fault for yet another bus crash, records show.  While approaching a red light at the intersection of Conroy-Windermere Road and Kirkman Road, Jensen’s school bus rear-ended a car stopped at the light, causing $560 in damage.

That November 2014 crash earned Jensen 4 additional points on his internal record, along with a 3-day unpaid suspension since he had accumulated 8 points within a 2-year-period, OCPS records indicate.

Jensen did not respond to a detailed voicemail left by News 6.

Seminole County Public Schools use a very similar point system to hold bus drivers accountable for their driving record.

In January 2012, Jack Timmel ran a red light on Red Bug Lake Road and sideswiped a van while driving a school bus with children on board, according to the Florida Highway Patrol.

Based on Timmel’s prior driving history, he was allowed to continue transporting students, although school district officials said they ordered Timmel to take additional classroom and driving courses.

Eleven months later, Timmel ran the same red light again and crashed into a car, FHP said.  The school bus then slammed into a nearby power pole, knocking out electricity to several nearby neighborhoods.

Video captured by the school bus’ on-board camera shows a shower of sparks outside the windows as an adult bus monitor is thrown from a seat and into the center aisle.

Before Timmel could be disciplined for the second crash, he resigned from SCPS and no longer drives school buses.

Timmel declined to speak with News 6 following the December 2012 crash.  He could not be reached for comment on this story.

Before being allowed to drive a school bus full of children, drivers must undergo extensive training.

“Seminole County Public Schools puts each applicant through about 80 hours of training and they are required to have a trainer ride with them for a set amount of time before being allowed to operate the bus alone,” said district spokesman Michael Lawrence.

Seminole County school district officials check the driving history of all new drivers, they said.  About a week before school starts in the fall the driving history of all current school bus drivers is reviewed.  Like all other Florida school districts, SCPS receives updates from the state anytime an employee’s driving record changes.

“These are reviewed by the safety team every week and appropriate action taken,” said Lawrence.


About the Author: