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Retire All Buses Built Before '77, U.S. Panel Urges

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Washington--Citing safety concerns, the National Transportation Safety Board recommended last week that school officials retire the more than one-fifth of the nation's school buses built before 1977.

The recommendation came as a result of a 10-month investigation of a Kentucky school-bus accident last spring that killed 27 people.

The transportation-safety board suggested that states order the phase-out of buses made before federal standards were tightened in 1977. If adopted nationally, the proposal would affect 77,000 school buses, about 22 percent of all those now in use.

The cost of replacing those buses, information supplied by states suggests, would total more than $2 billion.

State education officials said last week that older buses already are being retired in some states. But officials in many states said financial constraints have been the major roadblock to implementing a formal phase-out plan.

In New Jersey, for example, a 10-year retirement program begun in 1977 has taken all pre-standard buses off the roads.

But in California, nearly 45 percent of buses owned by public schools are pre-1977 buses, according to Ron Kinney, state supervisor of school transportation.

Mr. Kinney estimated that it would cost $450 million to replace the older buses in the public-school fleet. The current budget for bus replacement in the state is $3.1 million annually, he said.

The n.t.s.b. said the construction of the school bus in the Kentucky incident contributed to the accident's severity.

Specifically, the board noted the vehicle's unprotected fuel tank, flammable seat covers, and partially obstructed rear door.

The bus, which belonged to the First Assembly of God in Radcliff, Ky., was returning late at night from an amusement park near Cincinnati when an alleged drunken driver traveling the wrong way on an interstate highway plowed into it. The collision ruptured the fuel tank, causing the bus to be engulfed in flames. Of the 66 passengers, 27 were killed. The victims--3 adults and 24 children--all died of smoke inhalation.

The safety board said the bus had been built just two weeks before the stiffened federal school-bus-safety requirements took effect, on April 1, 1977.

Those standards require school buses to have stronger frames; more rivets in the bus body; roofs strong enough to support one-and-a-half times the weight of the bus, higher seat backs to give more protection to passengers; more emergency exits; and better protection for fuel tanks, such as crash-resistant steel cages and metal tubing instead of hoses.

But n.t.s.b. officials said it was unclear whether the additional safety measures would have prevented the rupture in the fuel tank in the Kentucky accident, which could have been caused by a spring dislodged in the collision.

When the accident occurred in Kentucky, there were about 1,200 pre-standard buses owned by school districts there, with half of those4used as spares, according to James Parks, spokesman for the state education department.

Today, there are 200 pre-standard buses out of 7,000 buses statewide, he said, and not all the remaining pre-1977 vehicles are on daily routes.

Shortly after the accident, the state board of education passed a resolution that encouraged, but did not require, local school districts to retire the older buses, Mr. Parks said.

"I know some retired those buses as a result of the request by the state board or the accident itself," he said.

In addition, Gov. Wallace G. Wilkinson appointed a bus-safety task force, which has recommended a variety of new regulations designed to enhance safety. Most recently, the task force has shifted its focus from structural problems with buses to the volatility of fuels used.

But Mr. Parks suggested that many of the older buses would have been phased out after 10 years of use anyway.

Larry McEntire, administrator of school-transportation management in Florida, agreed that attrition and encouragement from the state are effective in phasing out the buses.

Out of 12,000 buses statewide in the 1987-88 school year, Florida had 2,077 pre-1977 buses still in use, either daily or as spares.

The state requires superintendents to recommend a replacement schedule to their local school boards, and some districts already have completely eliminated the older buses.

Since the last inventory was taken showing that 2,077 pre-standard buses were still in use, Florida has bought nearly 1,500 new buses, Mr. McEntire said.

Virginia has instituted a mandatory phase-out plan, with pre-standard buses scheduled to be off the road by June 30, 1991.

R.A. Bynum, the state's program manager for pupil-transportation services, said there are 2,400 pre-standard buses operating in Virginia now, out of a total bus fleet of 12,000.

Mr. Bynum said that although the phase-out is on track so far, the need for new buses exceeds the production capacity of contractors, so replacing all the buses on schedule is unlikely. He estimated that it will cost $70 million over the next two years to replace the 2,400 buses.

It is that kind of price tag that has prevented many states and districts from a more aggressive phase-out plan, school officials said last week.

An average bus costs $30,000 or more. For those states that achieve economies of scale by purchasing large numbers of vehicles at once and then charging districts for them, a one-time replacement effort could be prohibitively costly, officials said last week. And the problem for districts that do their own purchasing will be equally difficult, they said.

In Texas, for example, where the economy is sluggish, Joey Lozano, a public-information officer for the Texas Education Agency, said the state was unlikely to act on the n.t.s.b.'s recommendation for a mandatory phase-out plan because many districts could not withstand the financial burden. Texas districts, he noted, conduct their own bus-purchasing programs.

A survey of 30 districts conducted by the state agency last year showed that nearly 15 percent of the buses in those districts were pre-standard.

Because the recommendations of the n.t.s.b. are nonbinding, if there was a fatal accident involving a pre-1977 bus, a state probably could not be held liable for not following the board's advice, according to Ivan B. Gluckman, legal counsel for the National Association of Secondary School Principals.

"But I'm sure that a plaintiff's attorney in such a case would attempt to use this as some type of evidence," Mr. Gluckman said.

Mr. Kinney in California agreed that lack of funds is the primary reason the state has not adopted a mandatory phase-out plan. Of the 13,250 school buses owned by public disel10ltricts, 6,000 were made before 1977, he said.

Compounding the replacement problem is the fact that in many states, the school-transportation division does not have regulatory control over either private contractors that provide transportation services or private organizations that offer programs for the young, such as churches and day-care centers.

George Davis, the supervisor of school transportation in New York, estimated that half of the school-bus services in his state are provided by private contractors.

Of the publicly owned buses currently in use in New York, 8 percent are pre-standard. Mr. Davis said he expected those to be off the road within a year.

"We would definitely like to get a handle on the private contractors next," the New York official said.

A number of state officials noted, and the n.t.s.b. concurred, that school buses, even pre-standard bus4es, are still the safest method of ground transportation, with fatalities far below the rate for automobiles.

In addition to its recommendation that older buses be phased out, the national safety board asked the states to toughen their drunk-driving laws. It proposed that states prohibit plea-bargaining in such cases and end the practice of giving convicted drunken drivers reduced penalities if they enroll in treatment programs.

The driver of the truck that collided with the bus in Kentucky is free on $540,000 bail, with a Nov. 8 trial date on 27 murder charges. He has pleaded not guilty.

In a separate action, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration last week called for public comment on whether it should propose revised fuel-system safety requirements for buses, including school buses.

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