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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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Agree to disagree
On April 13, 1998, the two agencies met to discuss the status of open recommendations, including H-89-04. In correspondence dated July 31, NHTSA expanded on its previous conclusions by noting first that the bus involved in the Carrollton crash was manufactured before upgraded school bus standards had gone into effect; therefore, the upgraded requirements of FMVSS 301 and 217 may have prevented the results of the crash. Second, they stated that "emergency exits work in many different crash scenarios, while reducing the flammability only slows the rate of fire spread." Says Charlie Hott of NHTSA's Office of Safety Performance Standards, "Fire-blocking materials on school bus seats, at the most, would allow an increase in evacuation time of only a few minutes in fuel-fed fires." Third, upgrading flammability requirements would result in very high costs with little or no corresponding benefit. These "very high costs," according to the 1995 NHSTA correspondence would range from $275, to upgrade only the seat foam, to $1,500 for the seat foam and a flame-retardant cover for a 66-passenger bus. These figures were repeated in its 1998 correspondence to the NTSB.

Weighing the costs
According to David Turner of Butner, N.C-based Athol Corp., one of the nation's leading suppliers of fire-blocking materials for school buses, "the foam cushion is not involved in the fire-blocking solution since the idea of flame-blocking seat covering is to prevent the fire from reaching the materials underneath the covers." Such covers, according to Allan Haggai, marketing manager for Thomas Built Buses in High Point, N.C., range from approximately $400 to $800 for a 66-passenger bus, depending on the grade of materials used. More than a dozen states have chosen to adopt regulations that require more flame-resistant materials for school bus seats. And, among these states, there is a wide range of standards. Some states require fire-blocking materials on all the seats, while others may require them only for the driver's seat and the first rows, or only in special-needs buses. Some states require the more expensive kevlar seat covers, while others require the less expensive covers. The kevlar coverings are more resistant to cuts and tears. However, all levels of fire-blocking materials possess the same degree of flame-resistant properties. In any event, those states have not allowed higher costs to prevent them from adopting their regulations. Doug White of the North Carolina Department of Education, says that the additional cost for fire block material on a 66-passenger bus in NC is about $324. "We feel the cost is warranted," he added. Mike Roscoe, Kentucky's state director of pupil transportation, reports the increased cost at $31 per seat in his state. When asked to comment on the question, "How do you react to the opinion that due to the rarity of fatalities caused by fire in school bus crashes, plus the costs involved, legislation requiring more flame-resistant materials in school buses is not warranted," his comment was simply, "An ounce of protection is worth a pound of cure." But this does not resolve the issue. Roger Eastman, state director of pupil transportation in Washington state, which requires flame-retardant seat covers, believes that requiring items on a school bus that will reduce the likelihood of injury or death should be left to the individual states. Bruce Little, Colorado's state pupil transportation director, reports that his state does not require fire-retardant seating material due to the high cost and the lack of buses that have burned. He says, "If we were looking at just safety, of course, we would require this material and many other safety features and heavier construction." Little believes that reality requires states to look at the cost of a new rule or bus feature and weigh that against the safety benefits. "That's very hard to tell a parent," he says. "But, again, this is reality with shrinking budget dollars. Instead of a high-cost safety feature such as fire-block material, we need to see if there might be lower cost alternatives."

Author Leon Davis is transportation director at Whittier Christian High School in La Habra, Calif.

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