Woodmore Bus Crash Update: Driver Refuses NTSB's Questions; Durham CEO Promises Safety Enhancements

Dec 2, 2016

Durham CEO David A. Duke speaks in a video the company posted to YouTube.

The National Transportation Safety Board has completed the first phase of its investigation into a the Woodmore Elementary school bus crash that killed six children, but the driver wouldn’t answer the NTSB’s questions.

The crash happened November 21st. Johnthony Walker veered off a neighborhood road, hitting a telephone pole and a tree. It’s unclear why. His attorney advised him to not speak with the NTSB. He’s been charged with six counts of vehicular homicide in a separate, criminal investigation.

Days before the fatal crash, several students had complained about Walker, saying he went too fast, purposefully swerving. One student had said it felt like the bus was going to flip over. Woodmore’s principal, Brenda Adamson Cothran, also had complained about Walker prior to the crash. She emailed the school district’s transportation supervisor, saying she’d recently seen the driver going too fast, in her opinion, when pulling out of the school.

For its investigation, the NTSB subpoenaed records from a hospital and a mental health facility, seeking Walker’s medical history. NTSB investigators are examining data from the bus’s engine control module and are downloading video from bus cameras.

A preliminary report is expected in a few weeks.

The bus company that employs Walker is investigating the crash as well.

Durham School Services is a private contractor providing bus service for Hamilton County. They’re based out of Illinois, and employ around 17,000 bus drivers in different states. Durham CEO David A. Duke recently posted a Youtube video answering questions about the company’s response. He explained why the company hasn’t publicly responded to some of the reports about the crash.

“In simple terms,” he said, “since the accident involved our bus and our driver, we needed time to conduct our own investigation, which is ongoing. We also wanted to be sure we didn’t disrupt the investigations being conducted by the police and the NTSB. And we wanted to be sure we didn’t do anything to intensify the anguish of the affected families or the broader Chattanooga community.”

He says Durham is implementing a secure, nationwide, cloud-based complaint system that will connect every school the company serves. The system will allow teachers and administrators to more quickly report issues with individual buses or drivers.

“The system will be immediately online in Chattanooga and we will roll it out to our entire customer base by the end of next year,” he said.

The company also plans to install smart cameras in all its buses. Duke said it’s part of a multimillion-dollar investment in enhanced safety.

“These cameras record both the driver and the road each time they sense unusual driving, giving us a record of what happened, so it can be promptly addressed,” he said. “These cameras will be installed on our Chattanooga buses before the end of the year and in all Durham buses nationally within the next two years.”

In an interview with the Chattanooga Times Free Press, Duke said the company received two complaints against the driver over speeding before the crash, but the company had not seen several of the other complaints Hamilton County Schools documented before that fatal crash.

Durham is paying for the driver’s legal counsel.

His next court appearance is scheduled for December 15.