Federal Agency Issues New Guidelines To Improve Student Safety on Buses

By Peter Schmidt — May 15, 1991 6 min read

Washington--A series of initiatives on school-bus safety by the Department of Transportation includes the first substantial revision of the agency’s guidelines on student transportation in nearly two decades, as well as proposed or final regulations mandating certain new safety features on buses.

The measures, designed to improve student safety in and around school buses, represent an attempt by federal officials to deal with changes in the field and to draw lessons from a number of recent bus accidents.

The pupil-transportation guidelines are not legally binding, but are considered by federal officials to be a minimum model for states to follow in administering transportation programs.

The omission of some areas of concern from the guidelines are as significant as some of the inclusions, department officials said.

Most notably, the guidelines do not include recommendations for vans and school vehicles other than buses. In explaining the omission, agency officials expressed concern that any mention of the smaller vehicles would appear to condone or encourage their use to transport schoolchildren, which the officials did not wish to do.

The guidelines, drawn up jointly by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the Federal Highway Administration, reiterate a 1989 recommendation by the National Transportation Safety Board that school districts replace all buses built before new safety standards went into effect in 1977. The new document also recommends guidelines for the use of pre-1977 buses that have not been replaced and for the sale of these buses to non-school entities.

In a related move, the N.H.T.S.A earlier this spring proposed regulations on bus design that would require new school buses to be equipped with additional mirrors to help drivers see students and additional exit doors to help passengers escape in an emergency.

The traffic-safety administration also announced late last month a final regulation mandating that all school buses sold after Aug. 31, 1992, be equipped with a left-side stop-signal arm that automatically swings out to warn traffic to halt when children are getting on or off the vehicles.

2 Crashes Cited

Many of the Transportation Department measures were based on federal investigations of the May 1988 bus accident in Carrollton, Ky., which left 27 dead of smoke inhalation after the used school bus collided with a pickup truck driven by a drunken driver, and the September 1989 crash in Alton, Tex., in which 21 students drowned after their bus rolled into a water-filled gravel pit after being struck by a truck.

“School-bus-safety issues have received substantial attention from the public and the federal govern ment” following the incidents, the traffic-safety and highway agencies noted in announcing the student-transportation guidelines in the April 26 Federal Register.

Jerry Ralph Curry, administrator of the traffic-safety administration, emphasized in a statement that school buses “safely transport millions of youngsters each day, and deaths or serious injury to riders are rare.” He said the revised guidelines were intended “to help state and local authorities reduce even more the risks to schoolchildren while they travel to and from school.”

The guidelines, formally called Highway Safety Program Guideline 17, had not been significantly updated since 1973.

State and local transportation officials generally welcomed the federal measures, but expressed reservations about their ability to meet the costs of the new regulations and guidelines.

Kelvin C. Clayton, director of school transportation for Utah and president of the National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services, noted that state governments are cutting their budgets and that school transportation often is viewed as “a very auxiliary type of service.”

Guidance on Older Buses.

Many state-agency officials who had submitted written comments on the pupil-transportation guidelines, the Federal Register announcement said, successfully argued against any recommendation that public-transit buses and small vans be marked as school buses when being used as such. Such markings, the officials argued, would provide a false assurance to parents and students and would erode the confidence currently placed in school buses.

But a large van carrying 11 or more people that is used to transport students to and from school or related events on a regular basis meets the definition of a “school bus” and must meet the federal motor-vehicle-safety standards for school buses,the guidelines note.

The guidelines recommend that buses built before 1977 be replaced “consistent with economic realities.”

The transportation-safety board, which cited pre-1977 design as a factor contributing to the severity of the Kentucky bus crash, has said such buses should not be in use at all. Some state officials also have suggested calling for the immediate replacement of pre-1977 buses.

But federal traffic-safety and high way officials said accelerating the replacement of these buses “could pose an undesirable economic burden on many school districts,” and observed that even the older school buses offer crash protection superior to that of many vehicles, such as station wagons and vans, that have been used as alternatives to them. The guidelines recommend that schools not charter any buses built before 1977 and that states develop means of informing potential buyers the older buses that the vehicles do not meet current standards.

Drug and Alcohol Use

In addressing the operation of school buses, the guidelines suggest that states develop mechanisms to ensure that bus drivers are not impaired by alcohol or drugs. The guidelines declined, however, to address the controversial issue of drug and alcohol screening, and left the determination of how best to gather information on impairment up to the states. The guidelines also recommend that:

  • Each state establish an agency responsible for administering pupil transportation, and each such agency employ at least one full-time professional.
  • To enable all bus passengers to have easy access to emergency exits, baggage and other items in the passenger compartment be stored and secured, and interior luggage racks, if installed, be capable of retaining their contents in a crash.
  • School-bus drivers be required to wear safety belts when the bus is moving, and each state require that drivers of large buses have a commercial driver’s license.
  • Pupils using school buses receive training in bus safety at least once each semester, and pupils who ride buses only for special activities or field trips receive training before each departure.
  • Owners of school buses who convert them for other uses be advised to paint them a different color and to remove stop arms and school-bus signal lamps.

New Regulations Sought

Citing findings that fewer people would have died in the Kentucky and Texas crashes if they had had easier access to exits, the traffic-safety administration also has proposed regulations requiring that full-size buses be built with more emergency exits. The proposed rule, described in the March 15 Federal Register, would specify a ratio between the number of seats on a bus and the number of exits required. The rule also calls for improved access to buses’side emergency doors and increased visibility of emergency exits.

Equipping buses with the new exits and other improvements, traffic-safety officials said, could cost $374 to $748 per bus, depending on which of various exit configurations are allowed and used under the final rules.

The traffic-safety administration also proposed rules clarifying and expanding procedures for testing the strength of school-bus-body joints.

In addition, noting that an average of 26 students are struck by school buses each year, the agency proposed that buses be equipped with a set of convex, wide-angle mirrors, which would cost up to $63 per bus. These already are required by many states.

The requirement for installing signal arms that takes effect next year is a response to statistics showing that an average of 12 children each year die after being struck by vehicles passing a school bus.

The signal arms, which are said to reduce passing violations by about 40 percent, would cost an estimated $200 to $300 per bus. They already are found on 71 percent of new buses and are required in 36 states.

A version of this article appeared in the May 15, 1991 edition of Education Week as Federal Agency Issues New Guidelines To Improve Student Safety on Buses