The single most impactful event in school transportation history took place in Carrollton, Kentucky on May 14, 1988, when a school bus and a pickup truck collided. The driver of the pickup was impaired, making this the deadliest crash involving drunk driving and the third deadliest crash in US history (after crashes in Prestonburg, Yuba City, and Chualar).
The crash occurred when the youth group was on its return from the Kings Island theme park, 170 miles from home. Not long before the crash, the group stopped to fuel the bus with 60 gallons of gasoline. Just before 11 pm, the bus collided head on with a pickup driven by an intoxicated driver.
In the collision, the impact broke the bus’ suspension, driving the leaf spring back into the gas tank. The leaking gasoline was ignited by sparks created as metal pieces dragged along the roadway. As the interior of the bus ignited, the temperature rose to 2,000 degrees, while a thick cloud of noxious smoke filled the passenger compartment within a minute or two of the crash.
In the aftermath, the mother of one of the victims became the president of MADD, and other families joined the organization. The standards for operation and equipment for school buses were improved both in Kentucky and nationally. The most important improvements included increased emergency exits, higher standards for structural integrity, and the use of the less volatile diesel fuel rather than gasoline.
The bus itself had been manufactured on March 23, 1977, just days before revised regulations changed the construction of all school buses in the US. At that time, the seating compartments and emergency exit requirements changed, and the fuel tank guard frames were first required. The bus was well-maintained, though, and had been used for more than a decade prior to the crash.
The actual collision did not result in injuries to the passengers. It was the secondary situation, the fire, that created the fatal conditions. With all 67 individuals (66 passengers and the driver) having access to the only available exit, the rear emergency door, and the speed of the flash fire, conditions were not good for survival. 26 passengers and the bus driver died, 34 passengers were injured, and 6 people escaped without serious injury. Evacuation was also hampered by the placement of a cooler in the rear of the bus.
The investigation afterward revealed that the passengers were victim of a log-jam effect, and died with their bodies pressed together facing the back of the bus. In less than four minutes, the victims were dead.
The NTSB concluded:
About 10:55 p.m. EDT on May 14, 1988, a pickup truck traveling northbound in the southbound lanes of Interstate 71 struck head-on a church activity bus traveling southbound in the left lane of the highway near Carrollton, Kentucky. As the pickup truck rotated during impact, it struck a passenger car traveling southbound in the right lane near the church bus. The church bus fuel tank was punctured during the collision sequence, and a fire ensued, engulfing the entire bus. The bus driver and 26 bus passengers were fatally injured. Thirty-four bus passengers sustained minor to critical injuries, and six bus passengers were not injured. The pickup truck driver sustained serious injuries, but neither occupant of the passenger car was injured.
They found the impaired driver at fault.
The impaired driver had a BAC of .24 and did not remember the events leading up to the crash. He was sentenced to imprisonment for 16 years after being convicted of 27 counts of manslaughter in the second degree, 16 counts of assault in the second degree, and 27 counts of wanton endangerment in the first degree.
With the publicity surrounding the crash, drunk driving received national attention. So did school bus design. Kentucky buses have nine emergency exits (front and back doors, a side door, four emergency windows, and two roof exits), cages around the fuel tanks, stronger frames and reinforced roofs to resist crumpling, high-backed seats with extra padding, a fuel system that slow leaks, flame-retardant seats and floors, reflective tape on all emergency exits, visible lettering on the side of the bus, strobe lights on the exteriors, and diesel-powered fleets. Minnesota adopted many of the same requirements in 1994.