Bus Safety at Issue for Preschoolers and Disabled

By Peter Schmidt — June 03, 1992 15 min read
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After flipping on its side, the bus, under contract to the Kansas City, Mo., public schools, caught fire.

The problem, school-bus manufacturers, transportation officials, and safety experts say, is that tens of thousands of pre-school-aged youngsters and disabled students across the nation are being ferried on buses designed for older and nondisabled children.

In addition, they say, most regulations governing the use of school buses were not developed with preschoolers or disabled passengers in mind.

The problem is becoming increasingly evident, officials note, as growing numbers of infants, toddlers, and disabled children are being transported by school districts, Head Start programs, and other youth-serving agencies.

“Socially, we are ahead of where we are safety-wise,’' said Philip Bors, an injury-prevention specialist for the state of Florida who described his state as being “in limbo’’ as it seeks guidance on the transportation of preschoolers and special-needs students.

“Clearly, all of the research has been with regular kids sitting on a bench seat,’' said Cheryl A. Huff, the Florida Department of Education’s transportation specialist for the education of exceptional students.

“We are now transporting a much broader range of abilities and ages than that,’' Ms. Huff said.

Representatives of several bus manufacturers and school officials said in interviews that they would welcome increased federal and state guidance on issues related to the transportation of preschoolers and disabled youngsters.

“I don’t blame school districts for not doing the right thing,’' said David B. Shinn, the president of a transportation-safety consulting firm based in Okemos, Mich. “I blame state highway agencies and state police and state departments of education for not working through this issue.’'

Laws Exempt Buses

Experts say one indication that the nation is ill-equipped to transport the growing numbers of preschool-aged youngsters in school programs is the fact that most states exempt school buses from child-restraint laws.

As a result of such exemptions, state transportation officials acknowledge, thousands of preschool children are being transported without using child seats and, usually, without using seat belts.

Most state pupil-transportation officials interviewed for this story, including those in California, Florida, Kansas, Michigan, North Carolina, Oklahoma, and Vermont, said most school districts in their states transport preschoolers without using child seats.

Typically, the officials said, the states provide no guidelines on how preschool children should be transported. In some cases, they said, officials recommend that child seats be used for small children but do not promote or require such measures.

W.M. Richard Alexander, the interim chief of pupil transportation for the Maryland Department of Education, said his state relies on district transportation directors to use “common sense’’ in transporting preschoolers.

Lack of Crash Data

While virtually no crash tests have measured the effect of bus collisions on children ages 4 or younger, some experts believe that such youngsters would likely be hurled over or under the padded seats that are designed to contain and cushion their older peers.

Child-seat distributors and state and district transportation officials note, however, that the current design of seats on both large and small school buses, those under 10,000 pounds, often makes the installation of child seats difficult.

And, they say, many districts that use child seats are defeating their purpose by improperly anchoring them with, for instance, belts, ropes, and bungee cords.

Officials of Thomas Built Buses Inc., a bus manufacturer based in High Point, N.C., asserted in a recent interview that most, if not all, current school-bus models were not designed to hold child seats.

In addition, they said, the installation of child seats may compromise the structural integrity of bus seating or pose additional risks to students who are knocked into a bus seat where a child seat is mounted.

“Anything that is put on that seat can possibly affect the impact test,’' said Daniel K. Trexler, a specification engineer for Thomas Built.

Transporting Disabled Students

Like preschool youngsters, disabled children are also often transported without proper seating or are sometimes improperly held in place with unsafe mechanisms, safety experts and state transportation officials said.

Tom Whelan, a rehabilitation technologist with Functional Rehab Equipment of Charlotte, N.C., estimated in a recent interview that 50 percent to 60 percent of disabled children are not transported to school properly.

Part of the reason, he said, is that insurance companies and school systems frequently refuse to pay the costs associated with transporting such children properly.

“Good intentions don’t necessarily mean the right decisions,’' said Karen Bruner Stroup, the director of the Automotive Safety for Children Program at Riley Hospital for Children in Indianapolis.

Ms. Stroup recommended that districts consult medical professionals to determine how best to transport disabled children.

Another problem, experts say, is that several disabled children are often transported on a single bus and entrusted to drivers and bus monitors with little or no training in dealing with their often complicated medical needs.

School districts also frequently leave disabled students in their wheelchairs and transport them by anchoring the chairs, sometimes improperly, to the bus floor. Major manufacturers of wheelchairs have recently acknowledged, however, that their products may not hold together in a collision.

“There are no wheelchairs in the current market that are capable of withstanding crash tests within a moving vehicle,’' said James R. Thaler, the vice president for corporate services for Invacare Corporation, the nation’s largest manufacturer of wheelchairs.

Mr. Thaler recommended that children be removed from their wheelchairs and secured to bus seats.

Other Trends

Several other recent trends and developments in the student-transportation field are also described as both unsafe and widespread.

Teenage parents enrolled in school-based programs, for example, are frequently allowed to ride to school on buses with infants and toddlers in their arms.

Officials also note that many districts have begun using vans to meet their growing transportation needs, despite the fact that van manufacturers have strongly discouraged their sale to schools for student transportation.

The problem, they say, is that vans do not offer the protections associated with school-bus travel--including requirements that school buses be sturdy, well-marked, and equipped to control traffic around them.

Addressing the Issue

There is evidence, however, that school and transportation officials are beginning to move to address the lack of federal and state guidance on the issue.

In March, for example, representatives of the school-transportation and wheelchair industries met in Dallas for a conference on special-needs transportation. The meeting was sponsored by the Federal News Service of Silver Spring, Md., which publishes the newsletter Transporting Students With Disabilities, and Serif Press Inc. of Washington, the newsletter’s editor.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, meanwhile, is expected this summer to finalize proposed amendments to school-bus safety standards that would establish requirements on the proper way to tie down wheelchairs and to restrain wheelchair passengers.

The new regulations, drafted in response to a 1990 discrimination suit filed by the parent of a disabled child in East Lansing, Mich., and by a local bus contractor who transports students with special needs, apply to new school buses with locations for people in wheelchairs. They provide that the wheelchairs must be securely anchored and face forward, and that the buses include a separate restraint system for each wheelchair’s occupant.

Meanwhile, almost a third of the states have adopted regulations dealing specifically with the transportation of disabled students, according to Don M. Carnahan, the president of the National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services. Mr. Carnahan is also the director of pupil transportation for the state of Washington, which, in 1987, became one of the first states to implement such regulations.

On the issue of transporting preschoolers, a New York law that took effect last November prohibits school buses from transporting children under the age of four without child seats, and provides for fines of $25 to $100 for each violation.

In Washington State, guidelines for student bus transportation recommend that child seats be used in transporting preschoolers.

In Indiana, officials plan to use regulations already developed for the transportation of disabled students as a framework for developing state regulations for preschooler transportation, according to Robert G. Russell, the director of the division of school-traffic safety for the Indiana Department of Education.

Mr. Russell has also been appointed chairman of a committee drafting national guidelines for the transportation of preschoolers and infants on school buses. The proposed standards are scheduled to be discussed at the 1995 National Pupil Transportation Standards Conference and could be adopted then.

“We like to be in a preventative mode,’' Mr. Russell said. “We don’t want people to lose their lives before something happens.’'

Sarah M. Greene, the chief executive officer of the National Head Start Association, said her organization has asked the federal government to apply standards for public-school transportation to the transportation of children in Head Start programs.

Taking No Position

Still, many in the school-transportation field have not begun to address issues related to the transportation of preschoolers and disabled students.

Elaine B. Weinstein, the chief of the safety-studies divisions co sic of the National Transportation Safety Board, said her agency has no formal plans to examine the safety of preschoolers on school buses.

The same is true of the National School Transportation Association, which represents private school-bus contractors, and the National Association for Pupil Transportation, which represents various sectors associated with the field.

Becky Mann, the public-relations administrator for Wayne Corporation, a bus manufacturer based in Richmond, Ind., said the issue of safe preschooler transportation has not been called to the firm’s attention. She said the company has not adopted a position on whether its buses should be used to transport preschool students.

Verna B. Borders, the marketing-communications manager for Blue Bird Body Company of Fort Valley, Ga., which makes about 40 percent of all school buses, said that her company’s vehicles “are really designed for the transportation of children in kindergarten or above’’ and that she was not aware that preschoolers were being transported in them.

The company’s president declined over the past two weeks to return repeated calls.

Ms. Huff of the Florida Department of Education said bus companies have been cooperative in addressing issues related to the transportation of preschool and special-needs students.

Nonetheless, she said, the firms appear “amazed by what we’re putting on buses’’ and “clearly backed into a corner’’ by calls for expensive new safety modifications.

Mr. Russell of the Indiana Department of Education predicted that the industry is likely to move slowly in addressing the issues “if we do not have sufficient information or data showing that there are significant numbers of children being injured or killed.’'

“That is just a reality of the transportation-safety field,’' he added.

Design Principles

In the event of a school-bus crash, the principle of seating compartmentalization--the placement of high-backed, padded seats close behind one another--is generally expected to protect nondisabled passengers ages 5 and over.

The problem for younger children, federal and state transportation officials, bus manufacturers, bus contractors, and safety experts said in interviews, is that, because of their size, it is unlikely that preschoolers would be as well-protected by compartmentalization as older, larger pupils.

“There is a lot of difference between those who can sit on a seat and put their feet on the floor and a little kid sitting on the seat,’' said Lyle L. Stephens, the chief executive officer of Dean Transportation of Lansing, Mich., and a plaintiff in the suit over the transportation of special-needs students.

“Young children should be in a child-safety seat,’' said Barry Felrice, the associate administrator for rulemaking for the N.H.S.T.A. “No if’s, and’s, or but’s about it as far as we are concerned.’'

“Any other transportation of a child is risky,’' Mr. Felrice said.

Danny D. Pearcy, the vice president of sales for Carpenter Manufacturing Inc. of Mitchell, Ind., the nation’s third-largest manufacturer of school buses, said all the barriers, spacing, and guards in school buses were designed for children ages 5 and over.

In a crash, Mr. Pearcy said, a youngster whose feet do not reach the bus floor has “a real good chance of going down underneath the seats’’ or “could literally pole-vault over the seat’’ and “become a projectile.’'

No Accident Histories

Experts acknowledge, however, that their comments are speculative, because bus manufacturers, the N.H.S.T.A., and the National Transportation Safety Board have not conducted school-bus collision tests involving dummies the size of preschool students.

Bill Gardner, the head of a division of Transport Canada, which conducts crash tests for the Canadian government, said his agency conducted one school-bus crash test featuring a single dummy the size of a 3-year-old.

While the dummy responded much the same way dummies the size of older children do, he said, no solid conclusions could be drawn from the test.

Officials noted that safety analysts often look to accident histories to see how passengers fare in certain kinds of collisions but that such histories have not yet been established for preschoolers or disabled students.

Such data have not been generated, they said, because disabled students have not yet been on school buses in large enough numbers and preschoolers have not yet been on school buses long enough.

An Indiana Crash

Larry D. Anderson, a bus driver for the Monroe County (Ind.) Community Schools, was driving a school bus in January when a pickup truck struck his bus head-on, causing him to lose control and hit a tree.

On board with him were his wife, Vicki, and his 20-month-old grandson, Brandon, who was sitting in the right front seat behind a padded barrier.

In the accident, Brandon fell off his seat, slid through a space between the barrier and the floor, and cracked his skull on a heater in the front of the bus before tumbling into the bus stairwell.

Brandon survived the crash; his grandmother was killed when she was thrown into the aisle.

Mr. Anderson said he believes an optional panel the district could have installed under the front barrier for $22 would have kept Brandon from sliding beneath the barrier and being hurt at all.

In past years, Mr. Anderson said, “We were told we would be in trouble if we hauled even kindergarten kids because the buses aren’t equipped for them.’'

Now, however, he said, the district is required to provide services to preschoolers, and children the size of Brandon are transported on buses every day.

Seat-Belt Debate

The question of how to transport preschoolers in school buses quickly becomes bogged down in one of the oldest debates in student transportation: whether seat belts should be required on school buses.

Although several physicians’ and parents’ groups have advocated that such seat belts be required, the National Research Council concluded in a 1989 report that there are more cost-effective ways to improve bus safety.

Currently, New York is the only state to require seat belts on standard school buses. In New Jersey, legislation requiring seat belts on school buses has passed the Senate and is pending in the Assembly.

In other states, the decision of whether to require seat belts on school buses is left to individual districts. Most bus manufacturers and transportation officials said in interviews that most school buses do not have them.

Small school buses, on the other hand, are required to be equipped with lap belts.

In one of the few recent bus crashes to involve a sizable number of preschool students, 19 students were aboard such a bus last year when, after being hit by a car, it slammed into a tree.

After flipping on its side, the bus, under contract to the Kansas City, Mo., public schools, caught fire.

Three students suffered minor injuries in the accident, and the rest were unhurt. Officials said more children were probably not hurt in the accident because of the fact that all were wearing belts and bystanders helped to quickly evacuate them from the bus.

According to federal transportation officials and other safety experts, however, lap belts alone are not designed for safe use by extremely young children.

“I have two paraplegics in our school district who are that way because they were in car accidents and they were in lap belts,’' said Zita A. Denkinger, a nurse in the Issaquah, Wash., school district. “I don’t care to take care of any more.’'

Ms. Denkinger has undertaken a campaign to discourage area districts from using lap belts alone in transporting small children.

Most state child-passenger laws, based on guidelines from the N.H.S.T.A., require that children under 1 year or 20 pounds be in rear-facing child seats; that children between 1 and 4 years or 20 to 40 pounds be in convertible or toddler seats; and that children between 4 and 8 years or 40 to 70 pounds be in convertible or toddler seats as long as they will fit.

No Compatible Designs

Officials said, however, that, even if school buses were equipped with seat belts, there currently are no child seats designed specifically to be placed in school buses.

Often, school-bus seats are too close together to squeeze child seats between them, and many child-seat models are described by school-transportation officials as difficult to mount or dismount in school buses with belts.

“School-bus seats do not conform to the configuration we have in our cars,’' said Frank A. LaCroix, the director of transportation for the Indianapolis schools. “We have had to improvise by putting a strap around the back of the seat and up through the back of the child seat.’'

“Since there aren’t any standards governing school buses and child seats, districts just have to feel around and see what is going to work,’' said Nancy D. Bauder, the president of the National Coalition for School Bus Safety, based in Skokie, Ill.

A version of this article appeared in the June 03, 1992 edition of Education Week as Bus Safety at Issue for Preschoolers and Disabled


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