Officials: School buses are safe

February 02, 2003|by ANDREA ROWLAND

State-of-the-art construction, regular inspections, well-trained drivers and passenger education make riding the school bus safer than ever for students in the Tri-State area, public school transportation officials in Maryland, Pennsylvania and West Virginia said.

"Our No. 1 concern is the safety of the students and passengers on the bus," said Chris Carter, transportation director for the Washington County Board of Education.

School buses aren't what they used to be.

All U.S. school buses must meet federal construction standards that dictate everything from the strength of the joints to the amount of space between seats. Today's compartmentalized buses have standard safety features that help prevent accidents and protect riders in case of a collision, Carter said.


"These buses are constructed like tanks," he said. "They are a thousand times safer than your personal car."

Bus interiors feature padded, high-backed seats placed close together to help contain and cushion passengers - much like an egg carton - if the bus is in an accident. Deflective seat backs "give" to absorb impact, Carter said.

Compartmentalization is favored over seat belts, he said. Effective shoulder harnesses haven't been developed for buses, and the use of lap belts alone would disrupt the deflective property of the seat backs.

It also would be difficult to make sure each student was buckled in properly, Carter said.

Buses have anti-lock brakes, eight-light warning systems, crossing control arms, reflective tape, strobe lights and sloping noses for better driver visibility, he said. Diesel fuel, which is less volatile than gasoline, is used to protect against fire.

Under Maryland law, buses - which cost about $60,000 each - must be replaced every 12 years, Carter said.

The 117 buses owned by the county and the 63 privately-owned buses the county contracts for service are inspected at least four times per year, and every bus undergoes preventative maintenance every 20 days, Carter said.

Buses are designed and maintained with safety in mind, but the school bus' greatest safety feature is its driver, Carter said.

All county school bus drivers participate in 20 hours of pre-service classroom training and about 20 hours of training behind the wheel before they take the Motor Vehicle Administration's written and road tests for commercial driver's licenses, Carter said.

Drivers must take six hours of in-service training and pass on-board evaluations each year, he said. They are also subject to random and post-accident drug testing.

Drivers have access to cell phones on the road in case of emergency, Carter said.

To protect drivers and passengers in inclement weather, school transportation officials closely monitor road conditions before deciding whether to send buses out, Washington County bus driver Cindy Hendrickson said.

"They do everything they can to protect the students," she said.

Hendrickson and driver Paulette Sirbaugh said they stress such safety precautions as keeping aisles clear of feet and backpacks, sitting down, crossing the street in front of the bus and keeping noise to a minimum. Sirbaugh doesn't allow passengers to suck on lollipops because the candy could present a choking hazard in a collision, she said.

Elementary school students who attend classes in the Chambersburg (Pa.) Area School District participate in a school bus safety program every September, said Patricia Shives, the district's assistant transportation director.

Bus drivers point out bus safety features and discuss the proper way to behave on the bus and to look for traffic when exiting the bus and crossing the street, Shives said.

"We teach them to look left, right and left again when they get off the bus, and to look left, right, left and at the driver before crossing the street," she said.

Drivers motion for students to cross the road as an extra safety precaution, Shives said.

All school bus riders in the Chambersburg area, Washington County and Martinsburg, W.Va., participate in state-mandated emergency evacuation drills twice year, transportation officials said.

For students who attend Martinsburg (W.Va.) Area Schools, the bulk of bus safety education is done during National Bus Safety Week in October, Transportation Director Larry Cart said.

Students watch videotapes about bus safety, participate in poster contests and discuss basic safety rules, Cart said. The Regional Education Service Agency provides a remote-controlled bus - called "Buster" - to help younger students learn proper behavior on and off the school bus, he said.

The most important bus rule - and the hardest to implement - is to listen to the bus driver, said Hendrickson, whose route includes north and west Hagerstown.

Respect is one lesson drivers have a hard time teaching their passengers, said Sirbaugh, whose bus picks up students in Funkstown and the Brightwood Acres and Londontown subdivisions.

"We get very little respect," she said.

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