New Safety Measures ApprovedFor Public-Transit Buses in Texas

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Responding to the death of a 9-year-old Dallas girl this year, Texas lawmakers have passed a bill that would make public-transit buses take new safety measures to protect school-age riders.

The legislation would require thousands of buses that carry young riders to and from school to add two or more hazard lights that will flash when children board and disembark from buses. The buses will also be required to carry a sign on the back stating, "Caution--children may be exiting."

While K-12 students represent up to 15 percent of all public transit bus rides nationwide each year, the Texas safety statute, if enacted, could be the first of its kind in the nation.

Gov. George W. Bush, a Republican, is expected to sign the bill, which would be effective Sept. 1.

The precautions are lawmakers' answer to the Jan. 23 death of Francine White. She was run over by the Dallas Area Rapid Transit bus she had ridden home from school after leaving by its rear exit.

The accident is still under investigation.

"I am very pleased that we could pass this important piece of legislation that will help prevent these types of accidents from reoccurring," said Sen. David Cain, the Dallas Democrat who co-sponsored the bill.

Help or Hindrance?

But the final measure was weaker than the version introduced this winter by Rep. Jesse W. Jones, another Democrat from Dallas.

The draft would have required traffic to stop when students got on and off transit buses. "If public-transit buses had the ability to stop traffic, it could cause all kinds of problems, especially in cities," said Tim Reeves, the chief of staff for Sen. Cain.

Some transportation experts are skeptical about the bill.

"Does it enhance student safety? I'd say that it may, but I doubt that the placards will do much," said Dan Roberts, the transportation director for the 26,000-student Rolling Rock Independent School District.

Diane Wigle, a specialist in school bus safety with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in Washington, worries that the flashing lights will confuse motorists. "They don't know what that means," she said. "I think it's fruitless."

Although all states require motorists to stop as students get on and off school buses, it is still the time when most school-bus-related fatalities occur.

Between 1984 and 1994, there were 408 pedestrian fatalities in which schoolchildren were either struck by a school bus or by another vehicle. Over the same amount of time, 164 passengers died in school bus crashes, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

No comparable national data exist for public-transit buses.

Dallas Area Rapid Transit officials backed Mr. Jones' bill. Now the transit system's board of directors is studying new safety measures for routes that cater to schoolchildren."We're trying to look at all the good ideas out there and formalize the good ones," said Morgan Lyons, the spokesman for DART.

Federal laws prohibit public-transit authorities from providing exclusive, contracted bus services for school districts. But they can offer special services, such as campus drop-offs and discounted rates.

One idea is to ask districts requesting special services to provide bus monitors--something that the 5,500-student Highland Independent School District in Dallas is already doing.

The 6-square-mile district does not have its own buses. Instead, it spends $15,000 a year for three crossing guards to monitor students who ride DART routes. The monitors even stop traffic for students. For its part, DART adds special drop-offs and pick-ups at the beginning and end of the school day. It also allows its drivers to wait for crossing guards. The buses make no other special stops, however. "We feel like it [has] worked out beautifully, and encourages a sense of safety for the students," said district spokeswoman Linda Prichard.

Texas Law Rare

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

The number is likely to grow as schools look to trim costs by reducing transportation services, said Charles L. Gauthier, the executive director of the National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services in McLean, Va.

But public-transit authorities do not often target school-age children for special safety measures such as monitors or flashing lights.

"We don't believe that the use of public transportation by schoolchildren presents that much more, or different, safety issues than for the rest of public riders," said Rhonda Goldberg, a spokeswoman for the public-transit association.

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