A second later, the 23 children jolted from one side to the other at the sound of a thunderous crash. Seats came unhinged, and backpacks were thrust about. Some students’ feet touched the ceiling while their bodies flew through the air. Their screams bled into cries of “Oh, my God!” as the bus landed on its side.
Those two minutes of terror came to light this week, a little over two months after police say a two-man street race resulted in a white Ford Mustang ramming into the school bus. No one died in the Feb. 23 crash, but two children sustained “serious injuries” that required surgery, according to police. The driver, identified by officials as 49-year-old Mario Perez, now faces two felony counts of great bodily harm by vehicle.
“Those children on the bus could’ve died because people were literally just having fun in their sports car. That should never be acceptable,” Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller said during a February news conference. “And people have to understand that their own behavior is dangerous and can kill children — that’s what happens when you do things like speed-race on our streets.”
According to police, Perez was driving 110 mph when his car banged into the side of the bus. The area has a speed limit of 40 mph, but Perez was allegedly racing against a person driving a blue Ford Mustang. Authorities are still searching for that driver.
Perez, who broke his femur in the crash, was released before his trial on the condition that he refrains from driving while the case is pending.
“We understand the nature of the video, but it’s important to remember that it doesn’t tell the complete story,” Jonathan Ibarra, Perez’s public defender, told The Washington Post Friday. “We have to let the court process work as intended.”
The recently released clip of the crash has renewed calls for more safety measures on school buses.
“Had the kids had seat belts, they wouldn’t have been flying through the vehicle,” New Mexico state Rep. Bill Rehm (R) told KOB.
In 2019, Rehm co-sponsored a bill that would’ve made seat belts in buses a mandatory feature, but the legislation didn’t make it out of the state Senate’s education committee after passing in the House.
At least 32 states and Puerto Rico have considered requiring seat belts on school buses, but only eight states — including California, Florida, Nevada, New Jersey and New York — do. In Arkansas, Louisiana and Texas, similar laws exists, but local jurisdictions aren’t required to enforce them.
Despite not having seat belts, school buses are regarded as the safest way for children to get to school, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, or NHTSA.
The number of children killed while riding school buses is dramatically lower than the number killed in cars. On average, six children die in school bus crashes each year vs. approximately 2,000 in other vehicles, according to NHTSA.
School buses are designed to protect riders through “compartmentalization” — essentially, shielding passengers from the force of a crash by including closely spaced seats with backs that can absorb the energy.
The buses are also built heavier and distribute a crash’s force differently than cars and trucks, which means they don’t need seat belts, according to NHTSA. They also have to follow stricter standards than other vehicles on the road.
But while their design has proved to be effective against impacts to the front and back, when it comes to side collisions — like the Albuquerque crash — they’re not as safe.
“Current compartmentalization is incomplete in that it does not protect school bus passengers during lateral impacts with vehicles of large mass and in rollovers, because in such accidents, passengers do not always remain completely within the seating compartment,” the National Transportation Safety Board noted.
The NTSB in 2018 called for legislation requiring all new large school buses to be equipped with passenger lap and shoulder belts.
The Albuquerque school bus crash may serve as an example of the “incomplete” safety mechanism. Seven children were taken to the hospital to be treated for their injuries, and two wound up with fractures that required surgery.
Yet, for some, the psychological toll could end up being more painful.
“These kids are going to go through this trauma for a while because every time they get on the bus they’re going to remember what happened,” Alfred Lucero — whose 13-year-old granddaughter fractured her pelvis — told KOB.