MEMPHIS, TN (WMC) - Documents revealed the federal agency charged with conducting safety reviews of school bus companies has not reviewed
in nearly eight years.
The last time the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) conducted a "full comprehensive review" of Shelby County's exclusive school bus transportation provider was 2007, according to agency records. Those records also revealed the agency rated Durham School Services as "conditional," a probationary rating, for what Dr. Jolanda Janczewski described as an unacceptable number of driver violations.
"Drivers not being medically qualified, drivers' logs not being filled out correctly," said Janczewski, CEO of Transportation Service Exchange (TSX), a private government contractor that rates the safety of America's motor carriers. Janczewski has inside knowledge of the FMCSA's 2007 review of Durham School Services.
"They had a lot of driver 'out-of-service' violations based on driver problems," she said.
Durham's national trend from that review mirrors its problems here in Shelby County. A WMC Action News 5 investigation revealed numerous Durham accidents, incidents and drivers with questionable criminal and motor vehicle histories, including a driver on a suspended license for nearly $900 in unpaid traffic fines and another whose violent felony history was revealed after he was caught smoking pot on his school bus.
Shelby County Schools records indicated in the three years Durham has operated in Shelby County, it has racked up 251 accidents, from single-bus mishaps with fire hydrants to major crashes involving minor injuries. According to FMCSA, Durham has tallied 320 accidents in the last two years among almost 400 school districts nationwide. Those crashes include 157 injuries and 6 fatalities. The records do not indicate if those fatalities included any students.
Durham's top brass promised a package of safety enhancements to the bus contracts of both Shelby County Schools and the county's six municipal districts. Enhancements include re-screening the backgrounds of every Durham driver in Shelby County, more frequent drug and alcohol testing and a revamped driver recruitment plan out of a recruitment center in Cordova, TN, instead of outside the Shelby County Criminal Justice Center.
Janczewski said Shelby County's school districts should shoulder some of the blame for Durham's local troubles. She said the districts failed to shore up a safety infrastructure in anticipation of the massive unified SCS's 1,200 school bus routes, plus another 368 routes among the six municipal districts.
"In that growth spurt, the safety infrastructure wasn't there," Janczewski said. "It was like a recipe for disaster. You were eventually going to see the accidents that you started to see because of it."
"That's incredibly sad," said Terri Harris, President of the Shelby County Council PTA. "And Durham has a monopoly on the school districts. There is no other choice for the local school systems, and I don't know what to say about that. But the federal government should intervene. We have no other recourse."
Duane DeBruyne, deputy director of communications for FMCSA, would not give a direct answer as to why the federal agency hasn't conducted a comprehensive review of Durham since 2007. "There are a range of interactions with (motor) carriers," he said. "A comprehensive review is just one."
DeBruyne also would not provide the agency's full 2007 Durham report without an official Freedom of Information Act request. WMC Action News 5 has submitted a request for the report.
Where the feds have dropped the ball on inspections, Durham's spokesperson said Tennessee has picked up the slack to ensure the safest possible buses and drivers.
"Every bus in Durham's fleet that services Shelby County Schools and Shelby County's municipalities is inspected at least once a year by the Tennessee Highway Patrol," said Durham spokesperson Molly Hart. "Bus drivers also undergo review to ensure they are operating in compliance with the requirements of their commercial driver's licenses."
Hart also insisted that FMCSA, through Oct. 2014, has scored Durham with the "...highest possible rating in the category of safe driving" with a "...recordable accident rate per million miles of .80 (below 1.5 is satisfactory)." But the FMCSA data available to WMC Action News 5 does not reflect those scores.
SCS and the municipal districts issued a joint statement on Durham's lack of federal oversight: "We are in regular contact with Durham officials and have been personally assured by the company's CEO that additional enhancements are in place locally to ensure safe transportation service for students in our districts."