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December 01, 1998  |   Comments (0)   |   Post a comment

Playing with Fire?

Although NHTSA is reluctant to require its use, flame-retardant seating material is making inroads in the school bus industry.

by Leon Davis

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Despite the fact that the Carrollton, Ky., tragedy is now more than a decade old, school transportation professionals haven't forgotten the horrific accident that claimed the lives of 27 passengers. The fire is what most people remember. That may be the reason why fire-resistant seat coverings are growing in popularity, even though the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) continues to deflect the National Transportation Safety Board's (NTSB) recommendation to upgrade the seating flammability safety standard. James Collins, marketing manager for GenCorp., which manufactures vinyl and flame-blocking seating materials, says he's seen a slow but steady movement toward flame-barrier seating material by school bus operators. "We're seeing more and more people asking for the fire-blocking material," he says. "They're shifting over, slowly." Tee Harris, a sales manager for Morbern U.S.A. Inc., an industrial fabric manufacturer in Raleigh, N.C., estimated that flame-retardant seat covering now accounts for 40 percent of the overall market for school buses. "And it's definitely growing," he adds.

Reviewing the past
It was May 14, 1988, when a church bus carrying 66 passengers was hit on the right front side by a 1987 Toyota pickup traveling north in the southbound lane. Gasoline from the bus' fuel tank was ignited and flames immediately engulfed the bus. In addition to the 27 fatalities, 34 others were injured. Reaction to this tragedy throughout the field of pupil transportation was immediate and prompted the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) to make several recommendations to various groups. Subsequent improvements include a concentrated effort in most states to phase out all pre-1977 buses, the upgrade of Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard (FMVSS) 301, related to fuel tank integrity, and the revision of FMVSS 217 to require that the total area of emergency exits be based on the designated seating capacity. However, one of these recommendations remains in an "open-unacceptable action" status. That one pertains to FMVSS 302, the flammability of seat materials. Although the specific cause of the Carrollton accident was the alcohol-impaired condition of the truck driver, the accident's severity was intensified by the fire penetrating the interior, igniting the seat material and causing the rapid spread of fire and smoke. Consequently, NTSB issued safety recommendation H-89-04 to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). It urged the agency to upgrade FMVSS 302.

Flammability requirements argued
In October 1995, NHTSA advised NTSB of its response to recommendation H-89-04. NHTSA concluded that there was no need to upgrade the flammability requirements for school bus seats, and pointed to three factors which influenced their decision. First, the Carrollton crash is the only one in which the primary cause of the fatalities was fire. Second, upgrading to a flame-blocking material is expensive. Third, the revision of FMVSS 217, allowing for upgraded emergency exits, allows for faster evacuation in such emergencies. NHTSA added that it had informed each state director of pupil transportation about the availability of flame-resistant materials. Each state was free to adopt regulations that require these more flame-resistant materials. The NTSB expressed disappointment in NHTSA's failure to increase the flammability requirements, and indicated that "pending further response, H-89-04 will remain in an open-unacceptable action status."

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