By JOAN LOWY
WASHINGTON (AP) - Federal accident investigators are considering new safety recommendations for school buses, large trucks and commercial drivers based on two similar fatal crashes in New Jersey and Florida last year.
The National Transportation Safety Board was meeting Tuesday to consider a report on the probable cause of a February 2012 accident near Chesterfield, N.J., in which a dump truck slammed into the rear left side of a school bus, spinning the bus around until it collided with a pole. An 11-year-old girl was killed and five other students were seriously injured.
The board was also considering findings from a previously concluded investigation of a March 2012 crash in Port St. Lucie, Fla., in which a semi tractor-trailer truck hit a school bus on a rear side, killing one student and seriously injuring four others.
Both accidents occurred at intersections and both buses were equipped with lap seatbelts, which are required on new school buses in New Jersey and Florida. Only six states require seatbelts on buses.
Investigators presenting their report to the board said it is likely the girl who was killed in the New Jersey crash, Isabelle Tezsla, wasn't wearing her seatbelt. Injuries from the accident were reduced because some students were wearing their belts, they said.
However, because the belts don't include shoulder harnesses, even belted students likely experienced a great deal of upper body flailing during both accidents that would have brought them into contact with hard, unpadded surfaces, investigators said. The student who was killed in the Florida accident was wearing his seatbelt, but was seated in the back of the bus closest to the point of impact.
The board recommended more than a decade ago that federal regulators require padding of hard surfaces in buses. NTSB Chairman Deborah Hersman said the board expects to make more recommendations on school bus occupant protections based on the accident.
The dump truck that struck the New Jersey bus was traveling between 53 mph and 58 mph in a 45 mph zone, investigators said. At the same time, the braking ability of the bus was reduced by an estimated 32 percent because of a combination of problems, investigators said.
A break monitoring system could have warned the driver that his brakes needed adjusting, investigators said.
Investigators said the bus driver should have been able to see the truck coming, but because of fatigue and the sedating effect of medications he was taking, he may not have realized the danger.
The driver had recently received a medical exam required for a commercial driver's license, but he didn't tell the chiropractor who performed the exam that he was taking several drugs that have sedating effects, investigators said.