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Firms Recall 160,000 School Buses Over Possible Handrail Problem

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Four school-bus manufacturers have agreed voluntarily to recall more than 160,000 buses with handrails that can ensnare children's clothing as they step off the vehicles.

Charles Gauthier, the director of the office of defects investigation in the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, said last week that all of the nation's school-bus manufacturers are under investigation for the problem and that other companies may be issuing recalls in coming months.

N.H.T.S.A. officials last month were notified of the voluntary recalls of 46,000 school buses made by the American Transportation Corporation of Conway, Ark., and 9,000 school buses made by Carpenter Manufacturing of Mitchell, Ind.

In March, Thomas Built Buses of High Point, N.C., announced it was voluntarily recalling 87,000 buses, and the Blue Bird Body Company of Fort Valley, Ga., announced the voluntary recall of 21,000 buses.

According to the N.H.T.S.A., the four manufacturers undertook the recalls after their buses were involved in accidents in which the drawstrings on children's clothing or bookbags became ensnared by the handrails along the stairways to the bus doors.

So far, Mr. Gauthier said, the problem has been linked to two fatalities--one in Connecticut and the other in West Virginia--as well as to at least 10 nonfatal accidents.

New-Style Apparel

Almost all the accidents have occurred in the past three years, officials said, and appear linked to a trend in children's apparel in which snaps of various shapes, sizes, and materials are placed on drawstrings to help hold them in place.

In most of the accidents, drawstrings on hoods or belts became caught in a V-shaped groove between the bus handrail and frame as children were stepping off the buses. The drivers, unaware of the situation, closed the doors and drove off, dragging the children along.

"These handrail designs that we are talking about have been used in these school buses for decades,'' Mr. Gauthier said. "It is only recently that kids have been wearing clothing that has things dangling off that can get caught.''

The companies involved in the recall have begun sending out kits with devices that will enable the operators of the buses to modify the handrails to prevent clothing from becoming ensnared or entangled.

In addition, the N.H.T.S.A. and some of the bus manufacturers have undertaken campaigns to make school-transportation officials and bus drivers aware of the potential hazard.

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