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Over a year later, fatal school bus crash leads to no policy changes

KINDRED, N.D. -- More than a year ago, a Kindred school bus full of fourth graders on a field trip collided with a semi on a state highway shrouded in heavy fog. With visibility severely limited, three more semis plowed into the wreckage.

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Authorities work the scene of a four semi truck and bus crash at the intersection of North Dakota Highway 46 and Richland County Highway 1 near Kindred, N.D. on Friday, September 25, 2015. Carrie Snyder / The Forum

KINDRED, N.D. - More than a year ago, a Kindred school bus full of fourth graders on a field trip collided with a semi on a state highway shrouded in heavy fog. With visibility severely limited, three more semis plowed into the wreckage.

The students and truck drivers were not seriously hurt, but the bus driver, 64-year-old Cathryn Jostad of Kindred, had to be hospitalized. Her legs were amputated, and she died from her injuries a week after the Sept. 25, 2015, crash.

Despite Jostad's death, the policies of the Kindred School District and the North Dakota Department of Transportation have not changed when it comes to fog.

"There haven't been any changes" in policy, Superintendent Steve Hall said. "It was an unfortunate incident, but we have not done anything different from that standpoint."

Following the crash, school officials had conversations about the district's policies on when to allow school bus travel, but ultimately left them unaltered, Hall said, noting that the district continues to keep safety in mind when making such decisions.

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"We make the determination based on the weather's condition. There's so many variables," he said, declining to comment further.

About four hours before the crash, the National Weather Service issued a dense fog advisory for western and central North Dakota. And the weather service extended a fog advisory to the Kindred area 30 minutes prior to the crash.

However, while the weather service issues weather advisories that sometimes warn of conditions making travel difficult or impossible, it doesn't issue travel advisories. That duty falls to the North Dakota Department of Transportation, and spokeswoman Jamie Olson said she can't recall the department ever issuing a travel advisory for fog alone.

Shortly after the Kindred crash, Forum News Service reported on the state's lack of travel advisories for fog. At that time, Olson said the NDDOT was working on a way to alert drivers to fog on roads. But over a year later, she said the department is still not issuing fog advisories.

Olson said that given the inconsistent nature of fog, pinpointing where it will affect driving visibility is difficult. "Those fog areas can be so hit or miss. It can lie in one little spot," she said.

Olson said it's possible that technology will someday allow the NDDOT to give drivers precise, real-time warnings about fog. "We're looking at ways to enhance our travel map and to enhance our reporting on that," she said.

TJ Melcher has been a Minnesota Department of Transportation spokesman since 2012, and he couldn't remember ever issuing a travel advisory for thick fog. Though, he said there's nothing preventing the department from doing so.

The first collision in the Kindred crash happened when the school bus driven by Jostad struck a semi driven by Eldon Burdick as he was trying to turn onto state Highway 46, according to the North Dakota Highway Patrol, which investigated the crash.

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"There is no question Jostad had the right of way and Burdick did not yield to her. These two basic facts are complicated greatly by the weather," wrote Cass County prosecutor Tanya Johnson Martinez in a September 2016 report.

In the report, Johnson Martinez declined to charge or cite any of the drivers involved. She wrote that the weather at the time of the crash was "indisputably foggy" and that the fog was a "significant contributing factor."

"It is difficult to ascertain exactly what the visibility was at any particular point on Highway 46 on the date in question. Fog density is not evenly distributed," she wrote. "Fog alters driver perception of speed and distance."

Foggy conditions can occur at any time of year in North Dakota. On Dec. 11, snow on U.S. Highway 281 created fog, reducing visibility 5 miles north of Edgeley where a car drifted into the oncoming lane and hit a semi, the state patrol said. The crash injured the driver of the car, a 48-year-old woman from Kulm.

The state patrol advises drivers who encounter dense fog to slow down, increase their following distance and turn on their headlights and fog lights if the vehicle has them. Drivers who feel the need to pull off the road should park as far over as possible on the right shoulder.

Burdick, the semi driver, declined to comment for this story, as did Jostad's husband, Bob Jostad, who referred questions to his attorney, Pat Weir Jr.

Phone messages left for Weir were not returned. Jostad's family has not filed a lawsuit in connection with the crash, and it's not clear whether one is being considered.

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