If the school bus is indeed an extension of the classroom, then a change in education is evidenced by the passengers who are being transported today. School bus drivers face multiple challenges in transporting children who require special accommodations. Once regarded as unusual, it is now common to see a large school bus equipped with car seats, vests and wheelchair tie-down systems for children with atypical health care needs.
The Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards for school bus seats (FMVSS 222) and car seats and vests (FMVSS 213) frequently conflict. This makes securement and positioning difficult. Installers may inadvertently install the car seat too upright, too loose or without a required seat belt. Without proper training, transporters may place the student in jeopardy when they unknowingly make an installation error. Government estimates indicate that more than 70 percent of children who ride in car seats are improperly secured.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) recently published "Guideline for the Safe Transportation of Pre-School Age Children in School Buses," which addresses the safest way to transport pre-kindergarten children. In the guideline, NHTSA makes it clear that these children should be transported in a child safety restraint system that is suitable for the child's weight and age and meets all federal safety standards. NHTSA also says that each child should be properly secured in a child safety restraint system, which in turn, should be properly secured to the school bus seat.
Drivers and school business officials often question how to select the best car seat, whether to use parent-provided or district-provided equipment, how to properly install a car seat and how to check for recalled equipment and district liability. In the past, finding answers has been difficult, but help may be just around the corner for school transporters.
As a means of providing current, relevant and accurate information about the proper transportation of children in car seats and vests, NHTSA has developed a four-day training program to certify a minimum level of proficiency for those who install car seats and transport children. The course involves significant classroom and parking lot exercises, a hands-on skills test and a written exam. Upon successful completion of the course, the technician receives American Automobile Association (AAA) certification for a $10 registration fee.
Each state offers classes through different agencies. Many classes are free or offered at a minimum cost and are taught by AAA-certified instructors. Within the school transportation industry, it is clear that documented, quality personnel are necessary. School transportation personnel such as bus drivers, attendants, occupational and physical therapists, early intervention specialists, transportation directors, bus contractors and business managers benefit from the course by recognizing the wide spectrum of information about seat belt systems, vehicle seat designs, car seats and other equipment. Well-trained professionals will ensure a safer ride for preschool children who are traveling on school buses with more and more frequency.
For more information about the four-day standardized course, contact your state highway safety office, NHTSA regional office or check the NHTSA Website at nhtsa.dot.gov.
Kathy Strotmeyer is Western Regional Coordinator of the Pennsylvania Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics.