Gravel roads, large vehicles, innocent lives.
They intersected horrifically last week in Nebraska, bringing grief to families, communities and an entire state.
When a school bus and a semitrailer hay truck collided in a fiery wreck at an unmarked intersection south of the town of Blue Hill, four people died — both of the drivers as well as students ages 18 and 10. Other schoolchildren were injured and burned.
Amid the mourning, the rarity of school bus fatalities is of little consolation. But Fred Zwonechek, longtime administrator of the Nebraska Office of Highway Safety, said that in the past half-century, only three Nebraska school bus accidents have killed people.
Nationally, he said, the school-bus safety record also is good.
“When you consider the millions of passenger vehicle-miles accumulated weekly in this country hauling kids to and from school,” Zwonechek said, “yellow school buses are probably the safest means of transportation — as they should be.”
Even after a searing summer of drought, our largely agricultural state gained hope and optimism from our annual rituals — such as the start of the school year and start of the football season. Rural or urban, we depend on good education and a productive breadbasket.
The sobering news of the 5 p.m. Wednesday crash on the backroads of south-central Nebraska, just before the fall harvest and a contentious presidential election, united the state in sadness.
Local authorities are investigating what caused the crash, in which the bus was headed east and the semi was going north. Zwonechek notified the National Transportation Safety Board, which he said is monitoring developments and may delve into it.
The only other fatal school-bus accidents in Nebraska the past 50 years, he said, were an early-1980s accident east of Lincoln, in which the driver of an otherwise empty bus was killed, and the 2001 Omaha crash of the Seward High School band, in which three students and a parent died.
Those statistics do not include school vans. Zwonechek said yellow school buses that pick up and deliver millions of students daily are designed to be “nearly impervious to minor collisions.”
Despite occasional suggestions that school buses should be outfitted with seat belts, some studies have indicated that the cost and drawbacks of seat belts outweigh the benefits of requiring them.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said last year that an average of 19 fatalities a year result from school transportation-related crashes — 13 pedestrians, on average, and six occupants of “school transportation vehicles.”
The administration said that school buses had a fatality rate of 0.2 per 100 million vehicle-miles traveled, compared with 1.5 for cars.
Zwonechek said there have been instances nationally of school-bus drivers suffering heart attacks or seizures, sometimes with students helping to steer buses to safety.
A week ago Friday in Colorado Springs, tragedy was averted after a school-bus driver — reaching for a trash can that had been knocked over — fell from his seat and into the bus's stairwell with the vehicle in motion and 17 students on board.
Unable to right himself, he called to the students for help. Jeremy Rice, 14, ran to the front of the bus, stood over the steering wheel and maneuvered the vehicle onto a busy street as a semitruck headed toward the bus.
At the instruction of the fallen driver, Jeremy pulled a yellow knob to engage the parking brake. The bus stopped, facing oncoming traffic and narrowly missing a tree.
The Colorado Springs Gazette praised Jeremy, a student at a charter school called Colorado Springs Early Colleges, for his show of character. The editorial playfully added that he should be forgiven for the fact that “he wore a Nebraska Cornhusker T-shirt that day.”
(His mother, Diana Rice, told me it was just a shirt from a half-price sale, and that the family has no Nebraska connection. She said Jeremy wants to be a Navy SEAL.)
Last week's Nebraska tragedy occurred not on a busy city street but at the intersection of gravel rural roads. There was apparently no time for anyone to react.
Zwonechek said such intersections are dangerous in part because they are lightly traveled — and meeting another vehicle is unlikely. Though not commenting on the Wednesday accident, he said that along many pre-harvest rural roads, visibility is obstructed.
In general, drivers are good about observing state laws to stop in both directions when a school bus picks up and drops off children.
For whatever reason, the drivers of a bus full of children and a truck full of hay bales didn't see each other in time to avoid tragedy at the county intersection.
Accident reconstructionists may give us a clearer view of how the wreck happened and how such collisions on rural roads can be avoided.
The close calls of daily life are not recorded in government statistics, but we all experience them. What if either vehicle Wednesday had reached the intersection five seconds earlier or five seconds later?
For now, the Blue Hill horror is a sad and tragic example of the wrong-place, wrong-time cruelty of fate — and the intersection of life and death.
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