[Update II, April 30, 2012: As some media outlets have reported, our law firm now represents the Tezsla family. The below post was written and published before we were retained and should not be considered the family’s or our law firm’s official statement on the case.]
[Update, February 24, 2012: The NTSB confirmed several facts this morning, including the school bus driver’s statements that his line of sight was obstructed and so he inched forward at the intersection and that he never saw the dump truck. The investigators also said the dump truck was overloaded past its weight limit, which, as discussed below, would factor into its ability to stop. Obviously, overloading a truck is itself negligent, and it subjects the trucking company to further liability.]
Readers of this blog anywhere near New Jersey undoubtedly know the story; for readers elsewhere, here’s NBC Philadelphia’s coverage. Thursday morning, a dump truck hit a elementary school bus at the intersection of Bordentown-Chesterfield Road and Old York in Chesterfield, NJ, killing 11-year-old Isabelle Tezsla, seriously injuring two other students including one of her triplet sisters, and leaving 17 more students with minor injuries.
I have written about some of the unique issues that arise in school bus accidents before — an issue that’s often on my mind now since my four-year-old twins rode a yellow school bus for the first time last week (and seemed to enjoy the bus ride more than the field trip destination) — but I didn’t intend on writing about this accident until I saw that the National Transportation Safety Board has already begun investigating the accident, with a focus on the seat belts in the school bus. I’m glad to hear there will be more investigation into the use of seat belts in schools buses — as discussed below, it’s a complicated issue that goes beyond a simple trade-off of cost versus safety — but I don’t want the two biggest factors that may have caused the crash, dangerous road design and driver error, to go unnoticed.
In general, there are five major contributing factors in fatal automobile accidents: dangerous road conditions, dangerous road design, driver error, vehicle malfunction, and vehicle crashworthiness.
From what I’ve read so far, the road conditions didn’t seem to be a factor. There was light rain, but nothing that substantially impaired visibility or traction. As far as I know, there’s no indication of a spill on the roads or a pothole or the like. Similarly, I haven’t seen any discussion of a vehicle malfunction, such as the brakes on the dump truck failing, the tires on either being too worn down, or the like.
My suspicion is that the road design was likely a cause of this accident. The intersection of Bordentown-Chesterfield Road (County Route 528) and Old York Road (County Road 660), which can be seen on Google Maps, is undeniably unsafe. There’s no signal or stop light, and only one road, Old York, has to stop. It’s not necessarily a problem when only one road stops; at least where drivers aren’t distracted, we assume that drivers on Old York will obey the stop sign then look both ways before crossing, and that drivers on Bordentown-Chesterfield Road will slow down if they see someone cross in front of them.
The problem is visibility.