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NTSB Cites Safety Risks for Students Using Transit Buses

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Public-transit buses are not as safe as school buses, but more school districts may be relying on such buses to carry students to school, the National Transportation Safety Board says in a report due out this month.

The federal study, spurred by a student's death in an accident last year in rural Cosmopolis, Wash., notes that even when transit buses are used primarily to transport students, the buses do not have the needed safety features that traditional school buses offer.

The accident in question involved a 10-year-old boy who was struck and killed by a utility truck while trying to cross a street behind a transit bus that was used regularly to transport students and other passengers.

In a preliminary report released recently, the NTSB concluded that the accident might have been prevented had the same safety measures for school buses been in place.

The investigators urge the Department of Transportation to study the issue and to keep better tabs on accidents and the number of students using mass transit to travel to and from school.

Their final report is due out this month.

No national figures are available on the number of districts using transit buses or the number of public-transit bus accidents involving students, said Gary VanEtten, an NTSB highway-accident investigator who worked on the Cosmopolis case.

But "there generally seems to be a trend that more school districts are going to transit vehicles," Mr. VanEtten said.

"It's a financial situation. It costs a lot of money to buy a school bus, maintain it, and train the drivers."

Nationwide, K-12 students accounted for about 15 percent, or 810 million, of all public-transit bus rides nationwide in 1995, according to the American Public Transit Association in Washington.

'Excellent Report'

Karen E. Finkel, the executive director of the National School Transportation Association in Springfield, Va., agreed that more districts are looking at mass transit as a cheaper alternative to operating their own school bus fleets. She praised the NTSB study.

"This is an excellent report that needs to be considered by school districts," she said.

Rep. James A. Traficant Jr., D-Ohio, introduced legislation in Congress earlier this year that would require the Transportation Department to join with the National Academy of Sciences to analyze modes of student transportation.

No hearings have been scheduled on the bill, HR 1993.

Transit buses do not have the standard safety features of regular school buses, such as their bright yellow color, flashing lights, and retractable stop signs. Motorists also are not required by law to stop for stopped transit buses as they are for stopped school buses, and they are not likely to take the same precautions as when they see a school bus, Mr. VanEtten said.

In addition, transit-bus drivers usually are not trained to transport students and are not responsible for the students' safety once they step off the bus, he said.

Bus Benefits

Despite those factors and the Cosmopolis accident, Washington state's top school transportation official said he feels transit buses are safe and beneficial--but only for older, high-school-age students who are better able to navigate streets without extra safety precautions.

The 235-student Cosmopolis district in western Washington state replaced its transit-bus service with regular school buses shortly after the November 1996 accident, said Roger Eastman, the director of pupil transportation for the state education department.

But other districts have found financial and other benefits to using the transit buses, he said.

"It allows students to participate in after-school activities and still have a ride home," Mr. Eastman said.

Washington state allows districts to coordinate public transportation for students, and about 7,000 of the state's 1 million elementary and secondary students ride transit buses to school, Mr. Eastman said.

Most of those students are in high school. Although his department distributed the NTSB's preliminary report to all districts, the state does not plan to change its policies, Mr. Eastman added.

In Texas, where two students have been killed in accidents involving transit buses since 1995, lawmakers have passed legislation to require public-transit buses to install extra hazard lights and post "Caution--children may be exiting" signs on the back of the buses. ("New Safety Measures Approved for Public-Transit Buses in Texas," June 4, 1997.)

Texas Fears

Dallas school officials also are rethinking student use of mass transit because of growing safety concerns and an accident in January in which a 9-year-old girl was struck and killed by the transit bus she had just exited after riding home from school.

The district is spending $300,000 this school year out of a $2.1 million transportation budget to provide school bus transportation to about 4,000 students who would otherwise take transit buses or walk dangerous routes to school, said Chauncey D. King, the transportation director for the 158,000-student Dallas public schools.

Under Texas law, districts are not obligated to provide transportation for students who live less than two miles from school.

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  • Read a summary of the National Transportation Safety Board report on the Cosmopolis accident and recommendations for avoiding a recurrence.
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