The outcome of a federal investigation into the fatal St. Lucie County school bus accident in March that killed one student and seriously injured others may eventually spare others the same fate.
The National Transportation Safety Board is focusing on that accident, and a similar one about a month before in New Jersey, because both may hold clues to understanding how to protect students in what is a rare occurrence: catastrophic side impact collisions of school buses and large trucks, NTSB investigator Kristin Poland said Friday.
Poland visited the crash sites and is investigating both accidents and said the NTSB study may take a year to complete.
Now "my colleagues and I are dedicating a lot of time to understanding those school bus accidents," she said.
Until then, the NTSB isn't commenting publicly about the accidents' details except to say the agency's focus in on bus safety rather than who was at fault.
The Port St. Lucie parents of the deceased elementary school student, Aaron Beauchamp , declined public comment Friday about the NTSB study, their attorney said.
The Florida Highway Patrol ticketed the bus driver, Albert Hazen, 56, of Port St. Lucie, for failing to yield when turning across Okeechobee Road to get to Midway Road as he was driving the Francis K. Sweet elementary school students home to Port St. Lucie. The State Attorney's office on Tuesday agreed with the FHP's decision to not file criminal charges.
It appeared Hazen was either inattentive or missed seeing the sod truck, according to the FHP reports. Within seconds of his left turn the bus and truck collided.
The front line of personal safety in school buses are the high-backed cushioned seats, followed by seat belts, according to the NTSB's last major national report on school bus safety, issued in 1999. The St. Lucie County School District bus had both.
The seats work well in protecting students in front-end collisions when the force of the crash moves from the front to the back, Poland said.
In the March accident the school bus turned into the path of an oncoming full-loaded sod truck, exposing the back right side of the bus to the full impact of the collision. The right side was bashed in more than a foot. The floor boards buckled. The bus turned 180 degrees.
The force threw students from side to side and even up, as was the case with Aaron. His head collided with the ceiling after he was thrown from his seat in row 10, the next-to-last occupied bench seat in bus that was filled with 30 students.
The most serious injuries were around the area of the collision, from row six back. Aaron and all eight of the seriously injured students were in that part of the bus, records show. Another 13 students were slightly injured.
Two students in row seven — Kayla Jungjohan, 8, and Joey Yannucci, 10 — were the most severely injured. Both were flown to St. Mary's Medical Center, in Palm Beach County. Joey's injuries necessitated him being put in a medically induced coma until he recovered.
Students seated toward the front of the bus had comparatively minor injuries.
The role of seat belts varied, according to the FHP reports. At front of the bus a 10-year-old girl who wasn't belted in had the same injuries as those seated around her who were bucked in.
At the back of the bus Aaron was thrown out of a loose fitting seat belt, the FHP report said.
Kayla remained in her seat belt despite the seat belt having a "good amount of slack," the FHP report said. An unbuckled student near her had less serious juries.
In light of the NTSB report in 1999 calling for new school bus safety standards, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which regulates school bus construction standards, in 2008 gave school bus manufacturers three options: improve bus seats, install lap belts or install both lap and shoulder belts.
It was left to up school districts to decide which one to accept when buying buses.
The NTSB's study of the two side-impact crashes may show that additional requirements are needed.
"We believe that every school bus accident offers insight into school bus safety and we can learn something," Poland said.