Welfare reform is changing the needs of underprivileged children who attend Head Start programs. That's because their parents are moving into the labor force in greater numbers, expanding the need for full-day and full-year Head Start programs. How does this affect the school bus industry? Unfortunately, it could have a negative effect. The cost of providing services for a full day is, of course, significantly greater than a partial day. That means that funding will be even tighter for auxiliary services such as transportation. Moreover, if parents are working full-time, they will be less available to transport their children to the Head Start facility, meaning that more program transportation will be required.
Safety efforts stalled?
The probable outcome is that Head Start operators who have been trying to convert their fleets from vans to small school buses will have to seriously review this effort. As we all know, school buses require greater capital expenditure than vans and also increase overall operating costs because of the need to hire drivers with CDLs. But, we also know that the liability exposure in operating non-conforming vans (in most states, 11- to 15-passenger models) is tremendous. Even if state law allows the use of non-conforming vans, the possible civil punishment in the event of an accident that injures or kills a child passenger could be quite severe. Can Head Start operators bear the risk of transporting children in anything other than school buses? I don't think so. More importantly, do they want to jeopardize the safety of their charges? Obviously not. It's very clear that school buses are safer than all other forms of surface transportation when you look at fatality statistics. Head Start transportation coordinators should not ignore this fact. If they want to give their clients an early push in the right direction, they should not sacrifice a safe ride to and from the Head Start facility. On a more positive note, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has released a guideline for transporting preschool-age children on school buses, which should be useful to Head Start agencies as well as traditional school district operations. The guideline is designed to assist transportation managers in developing policies and procedures for safely transporting infants, toddlers and preschool children. The document is a fine resource for Head Start operators who require some direction in standardizing their transportation programs.
NHTSA provides guidance
As Diane Wigle, highway safety specialist at NHTSA, notes, the guideline is not meant to be a comprehensive manual on choosing and installing child safety restraints. Wigle says school bus operators need to be selective when they shop for child safety seats. "Try them out at the local store and see which one works best for you," she says. In addition, Wigle recommends that school bus operators seek guidance from certified child passenger safety technicians on the proper methods of attaching child safety seats. They should also make sure that the child safety restraint system, attachment hardware, anchorages and school bus seats meet federal safety standards. When ordering new buses, the transportation provider should specify bus seats that have the maximum seat spacing (24 inches from the seating reference point). For an inside look at how Head Start operators are overcoming the driver shortage, see "Head Start Programs Push 'Commitment' to Recruit, Retain Drivers," in this month's issue.