The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) is urging states to prohibit the use of 10- to 15-passenger vans to transport children to and from school and school-related activities. In a report presented at a June 8 hearing in Washington, D.C., the NTSB also urged the Department of Health and Human Services to require that Head Start children be transported only in school buses. Currently, federal law prohibits automobile dealers from selling or leasing new 10- to 15-passenger vans to schools or other organizations for school transportation purposes. However, some states allow schools to operate these vans, which the NTSB define as “non-conforming buses.” In preparing its report, the NTSB investigated four accidents in 1998 and early 1999 that involved vans designed to carry 10 or more passengers. Nine people were killed and 36 others injured in the accidents, which involved collisions with other vehicles. In a safety recommendation released July 6, the NTSB said it is “firmly convinced that the best way to maximize pupil transportation safety is to ensure that vehicles carrying more than 10 passengers and transporting children to and from school or school-related activities. . . meet the school bus structural standards or the equivalent set forth in 49 Code of Federal Regulations, Part 571.” In three of the four accidents, NTSB investigators concluded that the number and severity of injuries could have been reduced by the use of school buses instead of passenger vans. They cited the school bus’ greater structural strength and compartmentalized seating. In the fourth accident, the board concluded that the crash was so severe that the increased safety of a school bus might not have made any difference. The accidents also raised questions about procedures for transporting preschool children. To that end, the NTSB recommended that states distribute and encourage the implementation of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s “Guideline for the Safe Transportation of Preschool- Age Children in School Buses,” which was released in February.
By Dave Wilson, Department of Defense Dependents Schools, European Transportation Management Office Not surprisingly, school bus safety videos featuring the traditional yellow school bus are met with a shrug here in Europe. It’s easy to understand why — the bus driver takes one look at the bus and says, “This does not apply to me. My bus doesn’t look like that. It has no such lights, and the laws here are different, too.” But video training is effective. And Terry Fuglsang, chief of the U.S. Department of Defense Dependents Schools European Transportation Management Office (DETMO), identified a need for more comprehensive and uniform training for drivers. So, we at DETMO decided to produce our own video. First, some background on DETMO, which is headquartered in Mainz-Kastel, Germany. We are responsible for the management of approximately 900 school bus routes. These routes transport 24,000 American schoolchildren each school day on and around American military installations throughout Europe. Now, back to the video. We decided the best strategy was to adapt some U.S. school bus safety principles while observing local laws and differences in vehicles. DETMO personnel drafted a script to establish the message and then arranged a production contract with a German film company. That was followed by work with film production personnel on the details to transform the message into an effective video. Student volunteers were selected to participate as “actors,” and a European driver and bus were obtained. Despite the vagaries of European weather, the filming was accomplished and, for the most part, the original timeline was met. The outcome is a video that depicts a European bus driver in a European-style bus in a typical European environment. The video emphasizes the school bus “danger zone” and demonstrates the desired method to approach a school bus stop, to load students and to proceed to school. Along the route, the video demonstrates fundamental techniques of student passenger behavior control. It might not satisfy American audiences, but this video is a hit with our European bus drivers.
The National Association for Pupil Transportation (NAPT) and the National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services (NASDPTS) have established the School Bus Information Council (SBIC) to provide the media with up-to-date statistics and other information about pupil transportation. “The goal is to help reporters get up to speed quickly when they are researching school bus issues,” explained NAPT President Don Carnahan. “School buses are a great American success story with a safety record that is unmatched in motor vehicle transportation,” said Terry Voy, president of NASDPTS. “Yet, because of the important passengers they carry, even minor school bus crashes usually make the news. We want to provide reporters with facts that will help them cover these stories more effectively.” Carnahan said the SBIC encourages reporters to look beyond the immediate news value of an incident involving children and consider the circumstances carefully. For example, was the bus at fault or was it struck at high speed by a drunk driver? Was a child struck getting off the bus because a motorist failed to obey the law and stop for the bus? Were even more casualties avoided because the bus structure provided excellent overall crash protection even under severe circumstances? The SBIC offers a toll-free number (888/FOR-SBIC) to expedite information requests.
A group of parents in Santa Fe, N.M., has launched an aggressive campaign to put seat belts on local school buses, despite warnings by state officials and the district’s transportation director that the restraint system needs further testing. “I’m very uncomfortable with the way the parents committee is trying to rush it,” said Carlos Santiago, transportation director at Santa Fe Public Schools. “I’m for anything that would increase the safety for the children. But there are still a lot of questions to be asked.” The parents group, which calls itself Seatbelts for Our School Children, has raised $24,500 toward the $500,000 cost of installing a three-point restraint system designed by Busbelt Development Corp. on the district’s 93 large school buses. The group already has enough money to put the seat-belt system on three buses, but is discovering that there are other obstacles besides funding. For example, the three-point belt system that it has selected has not been approved by New Mexico’s Department of Education, which says that seats would have to be redesigned to accommodate the new belt system. According to Gary Murphy, CEO of Busbelts, the two-passenger seats they plan to use in Santa Fe have passed extensive dynamic tests and meet all federal standards. However, Gilbert Perea, pupil transportation director at the Department of Education, is not satisfied and would like to see testing documentation from an independent engineer. Jim Beer, head of the parent group, said Perea is also asking that the parents committee provide evidence that at least one manufacturer would install these belts in school buses made today. The campaign for seat belts comes in the wake of a March 2 charter bus crash that claimed two lives. Both victims were ejected through the bus’ windshield. Beer said the committee hopes to prevent further such incidents and to heal past wounds. “It’s a route to community and family unity,” he says.
New York state legislators are considering a measure that would require all new school buses to have an ignition interlock system that would prevent drunken bus drivers from starting the engine. The bill, sponsored by state Sen. George Maziarz, would require that all new buses be equipped with a breathalyzer device that would “lock out” drivers who are under the influence of alcohol. In a pilot project at Hoosick Falls (N.Y.) Central School District, two school buses were fitted with the Draeger Interlock Trip Recorder, which was developed by Draeger Safety Inc. and CARSS Inc. (Children and Adult Road Safety Systems Inc.) “So far, everything we have heard from Hoosick is that it’s working great,” said Keliann Argy, president of CARSS. She said the device has been successfully tested for the past two years at Niagara Falls Coach Lines, a school bus company owned by Argy’s family. “If this bill passes, I see a tremendous impact on the industry nationally,” said Donald Boyle, executive director of the New York School Bus Contractors Association. Boyle said earlier ignition interlock devices used in the trucking industry were not reliable. “But the engineering of these products has progressed,” he said. If the measure is approved, Boyle believes the device should also be required on any transit buses that transport schoolchildren. “The transit vehicle is sadly given very little attention where safety is concerned,” he said.
School bus safety will be the topic of a speech contest developed for Oklahoma high school students. They’ll have the chance to show off their knowledge and public speaking skills while competing for $3,500 in college scholarships. The inaugural School Bus Safety Speech Contest will be open to high school juniors and seniors. The state winner, runners-up and regional winners will be rewarded with scholarships. Randy McLerran, director of pupil transportation for Oklahoma’s Department of Education, helped to create the contest. “It occurred to me that there were activities and contests for younger kids, but high school students had been overlooked,” McLerran said. “We wanted to get them involved, and give them an extrinsic, monetary reward in the form of a scholarship.” He expects “broad participation” in the contest. The speeches will be judged by a representative of the Oklahoma Association for Pupil Transportation for content and accuracy and by two speech and drama teachers for context and presentation. Regional contests will be held in September. The winners will advance to the state competition, which will be held during National School Bus Safety Week, Oct. 17-23. The state champion will present the winning speech at the National Association for Pupil Transportation’s 1999 conference in Denver in early November. The $3,500 in scholarship money will be provided by Around the Clock Freightliner Group Inc., Freightliner Custom Chassis Corp., Midwest Bus Sales and Service, Southern Plains Cummins Engines, T&W Tires and Michelin of North America. For more information on the contest, call Randy McLerran at 405/521-3472.
Four middle school students in Dayton, Ohio, received a $25,000 grant from the Bayer Corp. and the National Science Foundation (NSF) for their plan to improve school bus safety. Lisa Bales, Julie Craig, Tony Liao and Alexis Liebst — eighth-graders at Hadley E. Watts Middle School — called their idea “Bus Door Bust.” Their proposal is to replace the rubber door linings of school buses with bristles, which would allow straps, hooks and other items to pass through easily, reducing the chance of a child getting injured. The students came up with the idea after a local teenager, Brandie Sue Browder, was killed when her jacket drawstring became stuck in the school bus door. The driver, unaware that Browder’s clothing had been caught, drove off, dragging her to her death. The four students wanted to come up with a plan to prevent such tragedies from occurring again. They competed for the Bayer/NSF Award for the 1998-99 school year, along with nearly 2,000 other students. The team from Dayton won the $25,000 Columbus Foundation Community Grant, which rewards ideas that may become a reality in the community in the following year. “With the help of the Columbus Grant, we will be working with the Department of Pupil Transportation for the Ohio Department of Education to pursue our idea,” said Julie Craig. “We think the bristles are a practical, inexpensive way to save lives.”
Stock Transportation, one of the leading school bus contractors in Canada, has entered the U.S. market by winning contracts at three school districts. The company, based in Aurora, Ontario, converted Keller (Texas) Independent School District and bid successfully for contracts at Albany (N.Y.) School District and Kansas City (Mo.) School District. All three negotiations involved RFPs (request for proposals) rather than lowest qualified bids. Keller, which operates approximately 55 buses, privatized its transportation system because of ongoing problems finding drivers. “We were 14 or 15 drivers short,” said Charles Bradberry, the district superintendent. “They were just not available.” Bradberry said several school bus companies were considered for the contract, but the district chose Stock because it had a similar “belief system.” In particular, he said Stock was “very supportive” of its employees. Stock captured a five-year contract worth $2 million, about $200,000 less than the school district estimated its own costs over the next five years. In Albany, Stock won a five-year contract to operate 114 buses (including spares). The district opted to consolidate its operations, having used nine contractors and now relying only on Stock. Joseph Verrigni, transportation director at Albany School District, said Stock was the lowest bidder among the eight or nine competitors, but added that “price wasn’t the bottom line.” Verrigni said he was especially impressed with Stock’s driver training program. “It’s over and above what’s required,” he said. “I think that’s a great way of doing business.” Stock’s third U.S. contract involves operating 116 buses at the Kansas City (Mo.) School District. Barry Stock, senior vice president at Stock Transportation, said the company has been slow and cautious in expanding into the United States. (Stock operates approximately 1,650 school buses in Canada.) The strategy now is to have “implementation managers” hire and train local employees to manage the business. “It was key for us to find locations that were looking for a change and that fit our way of doing business,” Stock said.
New York state lawmakers are officially requesting that a U.S. postage stamp feature the yellow school bus. Their resolution comes on the 60th anniversary of the standardized school bus, whose “founding father,” Dr. Frank Cyr, initiated a movement for the stamp 10 years ago. The resolution for the 50th anniversary stamp failed, and Cyr is not alive today to witness this small victory. His mission is kept alive, however, by friends and neighbors in Stamford, N.Y., who wish to see this symbol of safety and efficiency memorialized. Harry and Joan Dorr were among the friends who initiated the campaign with Cyr in 1989. Since her husband’s death, Joan Dorr has continued the mission, which is now sponsored by state Sen. James L. Seward and Assemblyman Cliff Crouch. “Jim’s enthusiasm is rather contagious,” says Dorr. “He is so sure he’s going to be able to do something with this.” Though things are progressing positively, there are still obstacles. Namely, the Citizens’ Stamp Advisory Committee for the U.S. Postal Service, which approves only 25 of 2,500 commemorative stamp requests each year. Because the process can take years from start to finish, anniversary stamp requests should be submitted well ahead of time. It is for this reason that Dorr wishes this stamp to be issued simply to commemorate the yellow school bus and not to honor its anniversary, which may be well in the past when the stamp is finally printed. Dorr questions why some other stamps have been issued when this one has not. According to the Postal Service and the Citizens’ Stamp Advisory Committee, the stamp must be “historically important and of widespread national appeal and significance.” Why, she wonders, have seashells and the Slinky been given the stamp of approval? Copies of the resolution, which was approved by both houses, have been sent to New York’s U.S. representatives on Capitol Hill, the Postmaster General and the Citizens’ Stamp Advisory Committee.
School bus drivers know that children are apt to tell stories, but few encourage the practice. A bus driver in Springville, N.Y., is a notable exception, and she has other drivers following her lead. For the past two years, Irene Lockwood has allowed her passengers to read from their favorite books once the bus has arrived at school. For five or 10 minutes, until school doors open, students read aloud to their peers from books such as Clifford and Hop on Pop. Lockwood, a 15-year bus driver for the Springville-Griffith School District, says the 20 to 25 children on her bus love to hear the stories and try to avoid any delays in getting to school — especially stops for disciplinary problems. Lockwood said there were no major behavioral problems with the children before, but now she rarely has to discipline them and feels that the bus is safer because of it. “The kids listen,” Lockwood said. “When I say something, they do it. They know that I care about them. I feel like I am part of a team, not part of the equipment.” Fond memories of her daughter’s love of books prompted Lockwood to initiate the program. She said the first book she brought on the bus was The Monster at the End of This Book. It was a big hit. “All of the kids were enthralled,” Lockwood said. “They loved it.” After hearing Lockwood read stories of her selection, the children, in kindergarten through fifth grade, began bringing their own books and reading to each other. “The best part is watching the kids take an interest in reading and watching them grow in reading,” Lockwood said. “They want to get to school early to read.” Lockwood has received only positive feedback on her reading program, including a certificate from the superintendent. Two other bus drivers in the district have since instituted the reading program. “The program shows a lot of ingenuity and dedication to the kids,” said William Loockerman, the district’s business administrator. “I consider [Irene] one of the really outstanding individuals, not just as a bus driver, but as an employee. Her program puts a very good mark on bus drivers besides being someone behind the wheel.” This summer, Lockwood is trying to develop a children’s library at the bus garage to encourage more drivers to get involved with the program.
A Native American tribe in Washington state will pay the federal government $4.5 million to settle a whistleblower lawsuit that alleged falsification of school bus mileage records. According to the Tacoma Columbian newspaper, the Puyallup Indian Tribe was accused by a former school transportation director of falsifying school bus mileage records in order to receive extra aid from the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The $4.5 million sum is based on excess payments, plus interest, to Chief Leschi School during the school years 1993-94 through 1997-98. The civil lawsuit listed methods in which the mileage records were allegedly falsified — buses were put on blocks with engines running and wheels rotating to run up odometer readings; route books were falsified; and drivers drove empty buses to outlying counties to boost odometer readings. The investigation was conducted by the U.S Justice Department, the Interior Department and the FBI.