24% decline reported in loading/unloading fatalities
Nineteen schoolchildren were killed in loading and unloading accidents during the 1996-97 school year, a 24 percent decline from the 25 fatalities reported the previous year. According to the Kansas State Department of Education, which collects these statistics from state pupil transportation agencies, eight of the 19 victims were killed by their own school buses, while five were killed by passing vehicles. Three deaths did not involve the bus or a passing vehicle. One involved a transit bus accident, and two were not categorized. Deaths caused by passing vehicles were cut in half, dipping from 10 in 1995-96 to five in 1996-97. This decline could be attributed to the school transportation community's efforts to reduce the number of illegal passes of stopped school buses through public awareness campaigns and stiffer penalties. Kentucky was the only state reporting more than one fatality. It had three loading/unloading deaths. Other states reporting deaths were Arkansas, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Kansas, Louisiana, Michigan, Missouri, New Jersey, New York, South Carolina, Texas, Virginia, Washington, West Virginia and Wisconsin.
Surprise inspections reveal safety flaws
Several months after a surprise inspection at Irvington (NJ) School District resulted in 24 of 27 school buses being pulled from service, New Jersey officials still were discovering that some school bus operators had significant safety deficiencies. A surprise inspection in November at Irvington-based Jimmy's Transportation, contracted to service two routes in Irvington, found 67 major and 124 minor violations on the company's 25 school buses. Twenty-one of the buses were pulled from service. Representatives from Jimmy's refused to comment on the inspection. The original inspection at Irvington School District on June 13 was spurred by an accident involving a minibus that crashed into a toll booth on the Garden State Parkway and overturned, injuring several students. It was later found that the vehicle had faulty brakes. Inspectors from the State Police and the Division of Motor Vehicles found 56 major violations and 235 minor infractions at Irvington. In addition, four drivers were found to be operating without a CDL. Since then, surprise inspections have also turned up glaring safety violations in Sayreville, Jersey City and Pennsauken. According to The Star-Ledger in Newark, Hudson County Transportation, the contractor for Jersey City schools, had 26 of its 30 buses ordered off the road after 86 major and 130 minor safety violations were uncovered. Overall, the inspection team has reported 241 major violations and 565 lesser ones, removed 86 buses from route service and discovered eight drivers operating on suspended licenses. State Police Lt. John Redos, commander of the special task force, said the inspections will continue. The dismal inspection results have come to the attention of both local and state politicians, who are working to revamp the state's system. In September, Gov. Christine Whitman appointed a special school bus safety task force, saying at a campaign stop, "We want every parent to feel assured that they have nothing to fear when they put their child on a bus." The task force already has come up with preliminary recommendations that include removing the regulation of school bus safety from the Education Department and transferring it to the Transportation Department. The task force is composed of the state attorney general, the state commissioners of education and transportation and representatives of the State Police and the governor's office. In October, Assemblyman John S. Wisniewski (D-Middlesex) proposed a nine-point plan to improve bus inspections: 1. Inspecting school buses four times annually instead of twice. 2. Having two DMV inspectors check major safety features and file separate reports. 3. Requiring the DMV to subject major safety devices to more rigorous tests. 4. Requiring school districts or private operators to conduct minor daily inspections of each bus and maintain a record of them. 5. Imposing fines if the same defect is uncovered more than once annually. 6. Requiring school officials or teachers to report to the State Police any suspected safety defect on a bus serving their school. 7. Requiring the state to inspect any bus within 24 hours after a problem is reported. 8. Requiring bus inspectors to undergo a certified inspection training program. 9. Training bus drivers to identify safety problems.
7 school bus operators indicted on bid-rigging charges
Authorities in New Jersey have indicted seven school bus contractors on charges of bid-rigging. They allegedly conspired to rig bids for approximately 100 special-education routes in Monmouth and Ocean counties. The routes are worth $2 million per year. The following school bus operators were indicted on Jan. 12: Edward A. Anderson, president of Anderson Bus Service in Millstone Township; Eric T. Farrell, president of Farrell Transportation in Point Pleasant; Neil R. Hartnett, president of Hartnett Transit Service Inc. in Barnegat; Robert McGoff, general partner in Briggs Transportation in Point Pleasant; John J. Murphy, president of Murphy Bus Service Inc.; Richard B. Murphy, former terminal manager of Laidlaw Transit Inc. in Neptune City; and Lisa Somers, vice president of Para-Transit Services of New Jersey in Red Bank. If convicted, the bus company executives could face up to 10 years in prison and fines up to $100,000.
NHTSA awaits studies before ruling on stop arms
It could be several months before the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) issues a ruling on the use of additional light sources, such as light-emitting diodes (LEDs), on the surface of stop arms. "We're waiting for the results of effectiveness studies such as the one being done in Florida," said Charlie Hott, a safety standards engineer for NHTSA. Hott said studies are also being done in other states to compare the effectiveness of the LED stop arm manufactured by Transpec Worldwide in Sterling Heights, MI, with conventional stop arms. Last summer, NHTSA issued a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking on FMVSS 131 ("School Bus Pedestrian Safety Devices") to address the use of additional light sources on stop arms. Hott said the rulemaking is intended to clear up any "ambiguity" about whether Transpec's LED stop arm complies with a section of FMVSS 131 that requires that the "entire" surface of the stop arm be reflectorized. Transpec's stop arm uses flashing LEDs that spell out "STOP," thus obscuring some of that area that's supposed to be reflectorized. However, Transpec officials have argued that its LED stop arm complies with any "reasonable" interpretation of FMVSS 131. In the meantime, some school bus manufacturers continue to offer the LED stop arm. "I have not seen anything yet that says it is not in compliance with FMVSS 131," said Mike Sykes, fleet sales manager for Carpenter Mfg. "We have been assured by Transpec that it does comply." At least one manufacturer decided to remove the LED stop arm from its equipment list, although customers can arrange to retrofit the device on new buses at no extra cost.
Jesse Jackson's aid deters strike
A threatened work-stoppage that would have disrupted bus service for 10,500 Illinois students was narrowly averted when negotiators for the Robinson Bus Service of Evanston and the bus drivers' union reached agreement on a new contract - with last-minute help from the Rev. Jesse Jackson. Negotiations were deadlocked when Jackson offered to lend a hand and met with the negotiators late into the night. As the Dec. 17 deadline for the strike approached, parents of bus-riding students at 22 Chicago elementary schools and three high schools were told to be prepared to bring their children to school. In the city's north suburbs, the parents of 7,000 students, nearly all in elementary schools in Skokie, Evanston, Niles, Morton Grove, Glenview and Glencoe, received similar instructions. The strike was canceled when negotiators reached a tentative agreement shortly after midnight, only a few hours before the deadline. The impasse had developed because 430 school bus drivers represented by the Service Employees International Union were seeking a $1.50-per-hour wage increase, while the company was offering a 50-cents-per-hour hike. The drivers also were demanding health insurance benefits. A union representative said that the agreement was unanimously approved by the union's bargaining committee and addresses all of the union's concerns, but details of the new contract were not available.
Supervisors group defends degree requirements
A proposal to ease the certification requirements for transportation supervisors at Maryland's school districts has come under fire from the Maryland Association for Pupil Transportation (MAPT). The proposed change eliminates a requirement that transportation supervisors hold a teaching certificate and master's degree and assistant supervisors hold a bachelor's degree. Ed Green, MAPT president and transportation director for Montgomery County Public Schools, said that while the association does not oppose dropping the teaching certificate requirement, maintaining the degree requirements are crucial for ensuring student safety and maintaining the professionalism and credibility of the supervisory positions. "For the Department of Education to advocate a position that the educational level among our professional staff members is unimportant appears to contradict what the educational community is all about," Green said. In a memo to local school superintendents, State Superintendent of Schools Nancy Grasmick said the change was prompted by local school districts that want the degree requirements dropped. According to Grasmick, local superintendents have said they need to fill the supervisory positions with individuals whose backgrounds are in business and public transportation rather than education. In 1993, the state board of education repealed certification requirements for the supervisors of food service for similar reasons. The board of education had scheduled hearings in late January. The results were not available at press time.
NY legislature: Post information on buses
The New York state legislature has approved a bill requiring school buses to display the name and phone number of either the school district or the bus company on the rear of the bus. Sponsors of the bill, which takes effect this September, claim it will increase school bus safety by making bus companies and drivers accountable for careless and reckless driving. But Donald J. Boyle, executive director of the New York School Bus Contractors Association, said displaying the information will not guarantee safer driving, and might encourage complaints. "This is an invitation to complain, and not a necessary one," Boyle said. "I don't think people [who want to complain] have a hard time finding out who is operating the bus." Boyle said the bill also raises safety questions because it does not specify how the information will be displayed. "It might become another hazard," he said.
Laidlaw adopts ASE certification
North America's largest school bus contractor, Laidlaw Transit Inc. of Burlington, ON, has adopted a school bus technician certification program developed by the National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence (ASE). Laidlaw is implementing ASE's nationally recognized certification program to establish a standard-of-performance measurement for the company's more than 2,000 technicians and to develop criteria for additional training programs for its maintenance operations. ASE offers eight tests for school bus technicians. The written-only tests are offered in the spring and fall.
Two bus drivers die at the wheel
Two school bus drivers in Georgia and Michigan suffered fatal heart attacks while driving morning routes in their respective districts. On Jan. 5, Morgan Strickland, a 70-year-old driver for DeKalb County (GA) Schools, had dropped off his main load of students at Columbia High School at approximately 7:30 a.m. when he was stricken. The bus veered into an unoccupied car. Three Avondale High School students who were on board the bus at the time of the accident were not injured. Strickland had been driving DeKalb school buses for nearly 10 years and had passed a state-mandated annual physical examination last August. Georgia eliminated its 65-year-old maximum age for school bus drivers in 1989, in response to a decision by the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that struck down the use of age limits for school bus drivers in Alabama, Florida and Georgia. In Negaunee, MI, 64-year-old Will Dompierre suffered a massive heart attack as he was transporting about 20 elementary school students to school on Jan. 13. According to witnesses, the stricken Dompierre was able to bring the bus to a stop on the side of the snow-packed road. He was found semi-conscious with his foot on the brake. The bus was still in gear. Dompierre, who served as mayor of Negaunee for two terms, had been driving a school bus for two years.
Warning follows 5-year-old's murder
In the wake of the recent rape and murder of a 5-year-old girl, parents in Raeford, NC, have been cautioned not to leave their children unnattended at school bus stops. Brittany Lynn Locklear, a student at West Hoke Elementary School, was last seen alive at a school bus stop on Wednesday, Jan. 7. Four witnesses said they saw a man driving a brown pickup truck grab the girl before speeding away. Her body was found two days later in a water-filled culvert. Robert Creech, transportation coordinator for the Hoke County Schools, said district policy does not require parents to wait with their children at the bus stop, though parents remain responsible for their children until the bus arrives.
Blue Bird, Freightliner capture GSA contract
Blue Bird Corp., Freightliner Custom Chassis Corp., Caterpillar Inc. and Allison Transmission have been awarded a one-year contract by the General Service Administration (GSA) to supply school buses to federal government agencies around the world. The one-year contract has an option for four additional years. Customers will include military services, GSA Fleet Management, the Bureau of Prisons and the Department of the Interior. Last year, the GSA ordered 112 conventional school buses. Under the contract, Fort Valley, GA-based Blue Bird will manufacture the bodies, while Freightliner will supply its FS-65 chassis, which is manufactured in Gaffney, SC. The chassis will be equipped with an engine manufactured by Mossville, IL-based Caterpillar Inc. and an automatic transmission built by Allison Transmission in Indianapolis.
California buses face tightened smog inspections
The California Air Resources Board (CARB) has announced plans for annual inspections of diesel-powered heavy trucks and buses, including school vehicles. The inspection program, aimed at curbing exhaust emissions, will be similar to the biannual smog checks now required for gasoline-powered cars and trucks. John Green, California's acting director of pupil transportation, said he doubts that the inspections will cause any major problems for the state's school bus operators. "I'd like to think most of our buses are already in compliance," he said. The inspections, set to begin in mid-1998, test emissions with a device that measures the darkness of the smoke from a vehicle's tail pipe. A vehicle fails the test when the exhaust measures above a certain percentage of opacity. Violations result in a $300 fine, though "fix-it" tickets will be issued in some circumstances. School buses are exempt from the $300 fine if the violation is corrected within 45 days. The fine increases to $800 if the vehicle is not brought into compliance during that time. CARB spokesman Richard Varenchik said school buses billowing thick, black smoke are "one of our most frequent calls of complaint." Noting that excess emissions usually signal reduced fuel economy, Varenchik said the smoke represents a two-fold problem for school districts. "Fuel-wise, it's a waste," he said. "Public relations-wise, it's a disaster."
Drivers face the music
School bus drivers at Anne Arundel County (MD) Schools can continue to play radio stations of their choosing, but were warned to exercise discretion. The school board formalized this policy on Nov. 19 despite the complaints of a woman who said her 10-year-old daughter was exposed to raunchy sexual banter while listening to a radio talk show chosen by her driver. In the wake of Diane Brown's complaints last spring, some parents lobbied for a restricted list of stations; others wanted drivers to turn off the radios. School officials, however, said that complaints were rare, having received only two others in the past several years. They argued that drivers use the radios to obtain traffic and weather news and as a behavior management tool, which increases the safety of the passengers. "If you entrust the lives of your children with the driver every day on a busy highway, the driver needs those tools so he can safely transport those children," Kevin Owens, president of the local school bus contractor association, told the Washington Post