An exclusive 5 On Your Side investigation uncovered risky drivers behind the wheel of private vans hired by schools across Ohio, who could be unaware of serious traffic violations.
Our five-month investigation reviewed hundreds of driver histories, traffic citations and crash reports associated with the widespread employment of so-called "School Transportation Van Drivers" who are certified by the Ohio Department of Education to transport students to and from school in privately owned vehicles.
Under the School Van Driver program, drivers must be 18 years of age with a minimum of two years driving experience and completion of a four-hour minimum of coursework, along with additional requirements found in the Ohio Van Driver Handbook.
Unlike school bus drivers, commercial driver licenses are not required, and drug and alcohol testing is not required under state regulations, although school districts can require them.
In Akron and Cleveland alone, we found 436 certified drivers transporting 1,544 students to and from school.
A history of crashes
Among them, we found 41 with driver histories totaling more than 12 points for serious traffic violations, including some drivers with more 20 points for traffic violations over the course of their driving history.
And since 2014:
- 90 citations for speeding, red lights and stop sign violations
- 27 accidents, including seven involving children as young as 3 years old.
In one case, one of these drivers turned right in front of Tyler Nagy's SUV, striking him and causing the van to flip over. Only an airbag saved Nagy from serious injury.
"I just heard like nothing but gasping and heavy breathing," Nagy recounted. "And like, 'Oh my God, Oh my God.' It was super scary."
We found the driver that caused that accident runs a company transporting students to and from school. No one was inside when it crashed. But we did uncover the driver had a history of speeding and blowing stop signs and red lights. The driver also had 16 points in just 12 years.
In Cleveland, we uncovered van drivers cited for accidents caused by improper U-turns, failure to control, illegal use of cell phones while driving as well as speeding in school zones.
At the same time, we found Akron school officials were unaware of some serious violations — including crashes involving children — until we showed them our findings.
Our investigation found 14 drivers cited for being at-fault in 16 separate accidents — seven of those involved children as young as 3 years-old.
While no one was injured, school officials are dismayed that an Ohio Department of Education database used to monitor driver histories does not easily display vital information.
"It's very disturbing," said Akron Transportation Director William Andexler. "What you've brought up — the records you brought up — do not match my BMV report that I do once a month."
A lack of vital information
Andexler said he's alarmed that school transportation directors across the state may also be lacking vital driver history information used to make critical employment decisions about children safety.
"The biggest concern I have right now," Andexler said, "is that you have information that is not in our papers that we all — everybody in the state of Ohio — uses."
Last year, Akron paid its 190 van drivers $3.5 million to transport 905 students to and from school. Cleveland paid its 246 van drivers $5 million to transport students to and from school.
Andexler, along with school transportation directors across Ohio, rely on the database maintained by the Ohio Department of Education with driver histories supplied by the Ohio Bureau of Motor Vehicles.
It is supposed to contain vital information on driver histories in order for schools to closely monitor who is hired to transport children.
But it may not be as transparent as needed, and red flags may not be as visible to school officials as hoped for, allowing school officials to be left in the dark
Andexler said he checks it every day for updates and still was unaware of the reports we found in our investigation.
'New, more rigorous procedures'
It took three days of searching the database resources to turn up the information he did not have, and the school district "is now going to employ, new, more rigorous procedures when hiring and with new and current employees and contracted drivers to go above and beyond state minimums."
Also, as result of our investigation, the Ohio Department of Education is reviewing its database to determine whether improvements are needed.
"Because if there is information that people aren't getting we certainly want to be attentive to that," said Superintendent of Public Instruction Paolo DeMaria. "We take very seriously our responsibility to make sure that our students are safe especially in vehicles that are operated and or contracted by the various districts."