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Published in Print: September 29, 1999, as NTSB Urges Federal Review Of Safety Standards for Buses

NTSB Urges Federal Review Of Safety Standards for Buses

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The National Transportation Safety Board recommended last week that the federal government undertake a major review of school bus safety within two years in light of recent accidents and changes in technology since 1977.

But the panel stops short of recommending selt belts.

The safety board gave no sign, however, that it supports requiring school bus passengers to wear seat belts.

The recommendations to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, an arm of the U.S. Department of Transportation that sets and enforces motor-vehicle-safety standards, were the result of an investigation the NTSB began last year. The inquiry also looked at the protection of passengers on motor coaches.

Seat belts have been a contentious issue for bus manufacturers and some safety advocates since 1977, when NHTSA stiffened design and construction standards for the large school buses that carry most students to and from school.

Those changes, which have been fine-tuned several times since then, underpin the current "compartmentalization" strategy--also known as the "egg carton" approach--that is designed to protect riders by putting them in well-padded seats with high backs that are close together.

Compartmentalization spreads the forces of a collision over a passenger's entire body, reducing the likelihood of head and neck injuries, which were common in accidents involving buses of an earlier design.

That approach has made passengers in large school buses safer now than they were before 1977, the safety board concluded last week, adding that school buses are among the safest ways to travel.

More Crash Data Sought

But, the board said, "current compartmentalization is incomplete in that it does not protect school bus passengers during lateral impacts with vehicles of large mass and in rollovers." In such accidents, the panel explained, "passengers do not always remain completely within the seating compartment."

Karen Finkel, the executive director of the National School Transportation Association, which primarily represents school-bus-transportation companies but whose members include bus manufacturers agreed that a review would be timely.

"Compartmentalization has served us well since the 1970s, but it's been over 20 years, and it's time to look at it again," the head of the Springfield, Va.-based group said.

The safety board also said the government should upgrade its analyses of school bus accidents by: adding standard definitions and classifications for bus-body types to federal safety standards, improving collection of data on injuries, and putting devices on all school buses built after Jan. 1, 2003, to record crash data.

Vol. 19, Issue 5, Page 5

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