I am writing this column at a cruising altitude of 35,000 feet on my return to Los Angeles from the annual Southeastern States Pupil Transportation Conference in Huntsville, Ala. The seat belt sign is on, but we are free to move about the cabin. Or so the captain says. All things considered, I’d rather stay in my window seat and peck away at my laptop computer. I learned plenty at this conference, which always manages to present a quality program at a relaxed pace. If you didn’t attend the conference (which celebrates its 50th anniversary next year in Daytona Beach, Fla.), here’s some notable information that was presented.

NHTSA rule still distant
Charlie Hott, school bus safety standards engineer at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), said a final rule on the agency’s ongoing occupant protection study could be three to five years away. The final report on the $1 million, two-year program is expected next summer. It’s designed to create the next generation of school bus occupant protection, which could range from adding padding to the sidewalls and ceilings of the bus to the installation of three-point seat-belt systems. Charlie Hood, Florida’s state pupil transportation director and chair of the steering committee for the 13th National Conference on School Transportation, said he’s expecting some lively discussion on the following topics when the delegates meet next year in Warrensburg, Mo. — the use of vans and transit buses to transport schoolchildren; occupant protection (specifically, NHTSA’s ongoing project), pre-kindergarten transportation, loading zone safety (including a discussion of sensors and warning systems) and bus inspections. Gary Van Etten, a highway accident investigator for the National Transportation Safety Board, discussed the federal agency’s findings in the investigation of four accidents involving non-conforming buses. In a recent survey, he said six of 32 states allow the use of non-conforming buses for transportation to and from school or school-related activities. Meanwhile, eight of 28 states allow the use of non-conforming buses for Head Start transportation. “You should take a close look at what your rules actually say,” Van Etten advised. Mike Martin, executive director of the National Association for Pupil Transportation (NAPT), warned against the “distortions and erroneous information” being spread by advocates of lap belts on school buses. He said the NAPT and the National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services are preparing their own public relations campaign, which will use survey data and media education to promote the safety record of the yellow school bus. “That’s a story that needs to be told,” Martin said. Diane Wigle, a highway safety specialist at NHTSA, said she is planning a public meeting to discuss issues involving pre-kindergarten transportation, such as step heights, seat spacing and placement of seat belts. Stay tuned for more information on this proposed meeting. If you haven’t already read it, NHTSA’s “Guideline for the Safe Transportation of Preschool-Age Children in School Buses” can be accessed at SBF’s Website in the Resources section.

Rockets and school buses
One of the highlights of the conference was an evening at Huntsville’s U.S. Space and Rocket Center, which is packed with remarkable exhibits from the nation’s space program. As I sit here in this airliner, I can only marvel at the courage it took for the early astronauts to tuck themselves into tiny capsules perched on monstrous rockets. As we all know, driving a packed school bus takes grit, too. School bus drivers deserve more recognition. Take a few minutes now and then to praise your drivers for having “the right stuff.”