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Student Bus Drivers No Longer Safe, Officials Argue

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Prompted by an increase in the number of school-bus accidents involving student drivers, the superintendent of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg, N.C., school district has recommended that the system phase out its use of student drivers.

This month's announcement by Jay M. Robinson represents the first time a North Carolina district has attempted to break with the state's 50-year tradition of employing students in substantial numbers to drive school buses.

A handful of other North Carolina districts have announced their intention to increase the proportion of adult to student drivers--now at a 30-percent to 60-percent ratio. But Mr. Robinson is the first official to indicate an interest in removing all student drivers, according to Norfleet Gardner, director of the state's division of school-bus transportation.

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Student Bus Drivers: No Longer Safe,

Officials Argue

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ploys 640 school-bus drivers, 39 percent of whom are students. The student drivers were involved in 64 percent of school-bus accidents in the district last year, according to the superintendent.

"Overall, the number of accidents has gone down," Mr. Robinson said. "But the student drivers are having a disproportionate share of those accidents."

National Statistics

In 1983, the latest year for which figures are available, about 21.5 million students were transported on school buses daily in the United States, up from 15 million in 1963, according to Terry Miller, a statistician with the National Safety Council in Chicago.

Some 130 people were killed in school-bus accidents in 1983, Mr. Miller said; of that number, 55 were students--10 who were killed while on the bus and 45 who were struck while approaching or leaving the bus zone.

Another 6,000 individuals were injured in school-bus accidents in 1983. That figure, Mr. Miller noted, includes 3,300 pupils and 2,700 bus drivers, nonstudents on the bus, pedestrians, and drivers of other vehicles.

In 1963, 4,600 individuals--including 3,500 pupils--were injured, Mr. Miller said. The council did not collect fatality rates at that time.

Mr. Miller noted that the school-bus accident figures are estimates because states provide statistics arrived at on differing bases. There is no national standard for reporting school-bus accident statistics.

The Charlotte superintendent's recommendation, which would phase out student drivers by the end of the next school year, comes at a time when educators and state officials in many of the 12 states that continue to employ student drivers are concluding that--because of recent serious accidents involving students, the possibility of litigation, and increasingly hazardous driving conditions--students may not be best suited to work as school-bus drivers.

Reasons for Decline

Mr. Robinson attributed the decline in students' driving performance to several factors, among them the fact that because Charlotte is a densely populated area atypical of the state as a whole, driving conditions are more hazardous.

He also noted that public opinion has become less supportive of student bus drivers. And because district officials are very committed to the school-desegregation plan, he said, "[that plan] is threatened if parents really feel the buses are not safe."

For those reasons, Mr. Robinson said, he will forward his proposal for an all-adult driving force at the board of education's Feb. 12 meeting. He expects the board to approve the plan.

"I've always supported the student drivers," Mr. Robinson said. "Up until recently, we've been able to show that our student drivers' safety records were as good or better than the adults'. In the last three years, though, our student driving record has deteriorated. ... and we have to take some action."

Student Accidents

Most school-transportation experts note that it is difficult to compare states' school-bus safety records because every state reports6accidents differently--some report only those that involve $300 or more in damage, while others report all accidents regardless of the cost of damage. But they acknowledge that student drivers consistently account for more than their share of accidents.

"In the five states employing the largest number of 16- and 17-year-olds, compared with the 18-year-old drivers, the youngsters have more accidents per mile and more accidents per driver," said David Soule, pupil-transportation specialist with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and author of a report on the safety records of young school-bus drivers.

In the eight states that employ most of the 16- and 17-year-old drivers, he said, those student drivers represented 22 percent of the total school-bus driving force and were responsible for 35 percent of the accidents.

"You could expect that if they compose 22 percent, they would have 22 percent of the accidents," Mr. Soule said. "The 16- and 17-year-olds are overrepresented in the accident picture; they have more than their share."

Of those eight states, according to Mr. Soule, North and South Carolina hire 16- and 17-year-old drivers in "significant numbers."

"They're up in the thousands, whereas everyone else is in the hundreds," he said.

'Adult Responsibilities'

One of the reasons students may have higher accident records is because they are asked to assume adult responsibilities in a peer environment, suggested Hanford Combs, president of School Transportation Systems Inc., a privateel5lconsulting business that deals with child-safety issues in transportation.

"Safety problems arise when student drivers are placed on buses with their peers," he said. "That consequently creates a bad situation for that reason alone."

"We're asking a youngster to take on a real adult responsibility," added Mr. Combs, who is former director of school transportation for the Ohio Department of Education.

'Hazardous Occupation'

The recognition that teen-agers might not be suited to work as paid drivers is not a new one. In 1939, the U.S. Labor Department issued Hazardous Occupation Order Number 2 prohibiting 16- and 17-year-olds from driving motor vehicles for commercial purposes, according to James Valin, assistant administrator for the wage and hour division of the employment standards administration.

But schools were not covered by that order until 1966, when school systems were brought under the Fair Labor Standards Act. At that point, however, an exemption to the order was developed, Mr. Valin said, to enable those systems that had been employing students as drivers to continue the practice.

Since 1968, states in which students are hired as bus drivers have had to apply through the governor's office to receive the exemption. State transportation officials say they have had little trouble getting the exemption over the years.

Students Commended

Some officials, moreover, do not believe that student drivers should be banned. Cliff Nix, assistant director of driver training and safety for the South Carolina Department of Education, acknowledged that two recent accidents--one in which 33 South Carolina students were injured when a bus driven by a 16-year-old student overturned--have focused attention on the issue. But he defended the state's policy on student drivers.

"We feel they do a good job of driving the buses," he said. "The student drivers prevent a lot of serious acci-dents because of their reaction time. If we had all adults, we may have more serious accidents than we have now."

And Mr. Nix maintained that student drivers perform as well as the adults. Students' higher rate of accidents, he argued, is "a small percentage more--it's not that much more. ... I don't think you can penalize everybody just because of percentages."

Liability Problems

Norman Loper, coordinator of pupil transportation in the school-transportation division of the Alabama Education Department, also commends students' safety records. But he said the state is trying to "work our way out of using 16- and 17-year-olds" because of potential liability problems.

Although only 1 to 3 percent of the state's 12,000 school-bus drivers are students, Mr. Loper said, "there's a possibility of a type of liability that I don't want to be involved in. I have a real feeling that there could be a bad situation should a 16- or 17-year-old be trained to drive a bus and be involved in a real serious accident."

In Alabama, as in other states, it is the state's responsibility to apply annually for the exemption to the Hazardous Occupation Order prohibiting 16- and 17-year-olds from driving school buses. But since the task of hiring drivers is passed from the state to the local districts, he pointed out, students may be hired without their parents knowing that they are engaging in an occupation defined as "hazardous."

"It really bothers me that some child be put into a hazardous occupation and the parents not know the risks," Mr. Loper said. "I'd just as soon they cut out the exemption altogether. ... Should there be a bad accident, the state is going to be sued for getting the exemption.''

Mr. Gardner of North Carolina's transportation division pointed out, however, that any attempt by district officials to phase out student bus drivers will have to be gradual and will require a considerable amount of local money.

Of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg superintendent's proposal to drop student drivers, he said: "I don't think they'll find 635 adults who want to drive a bus for [an average of] $4.25 an hour."

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