Archive for Thursday, May 12, 2005

Metro-area school bus crash prompts questions

District, Laidlaw follow safety protocol

May 12, 2005

A day after a fatal school bus crash in Liberty, Mo., De Soto USD 232 operations director Jack Deyoe spent part of Tuesday morning fielding e-mails from parents asking about seat belts. At De Soto's Laidlaw Transit office, manager Frieda Wells got some of the same questions.

"The first thing that everybody brings to the front when you have a big accident is seat belts, like it's never been thought of before," Wells said.

In truth, there's a lot more to bus safety than seat belts, Wells and Deyoe said. Driver training, drug screenings, student behavior and mechanical checks all factor in, as do national studies on the safety of seat belts in school buses.

While installing seat belts would cost more, Deyoe said that wasn't the main reason school buses didn't have them. Research is ongoing, but National Highway Traffic Safety Administration studies have shown that children are safer on buses without seat belts, he and Wells said.

"At this point in time ... if you have seat belts that are either improperly used or not used but available, the liability is even worse than not having them there," Deyoe said.

Because of school buses' safety design -- riders are "compartmentalized" between high, heavily padded seat backs -- children would be better off unbelted than wearing a lap belt in a crash, Wells said.

She said studies have shown that wearing lap belts would result in more head, spine and neck injuries because the upper part of the body would be isolated and flung forward while the hips stayed back.

"If you don't have a seat belt on, your whole body slides to the front," Wells said. "If you do have a seat belt on that restrains the hip part, your injuries come from that."

Several of the district's smaller buses for preschool and special education students do have seat belts with shoulder straps. But those buses operate with an assistant who can ensure belts are used properly and could be undone quickly in an evacuation.

Wells said extra help would be key if shoulder belts were to be installed in regular buses, where seat belts would likely be tripped on, buckled improperly or used as weapons without supervision.

With buses that carry upwards of 50 children, seat belts could be a hindrance during an emergency evacuation, such as a fire, Wells said.

"If you've got that many kids strapped and buckled in like that, what if the driver's disabled?" Wells said. "How are you going to get them out?"

Deyoe said the district had several ways of dealing with behavior problems on buses, which can compete with drivers keeping their eyes on the road.

Deyoe said Board of Education policy addressed consequences of misbehaving on the bus. One district bus currently has a camera on it, but Deyoe said cameras could easily be installed on others if discipline problems arose.

Wells said Laidlaw, which the district contracts for all bus services, took great pains to ensure both drivers and buses were operating safely.

Drivers must have at least 40 hours of training, take CPR every year and first-aid training every three years, pass a physical and random drug screenings, and attend monthly safety meetings, Wells said.

Drivers must conduct Daily Vehicle Inspections, or DVIs, after every route and turn in their checklists to mechanics.

"Every time they take the bus off the lot, they have to inspect it," Wells said.

Wells said if problems, especially with brakes, came up on a route, drivers were required to stop until other arrangements could be made.

Wells said school bus accidents were uncommon but always received a lot of attention.

"A bus wreck is always the first thing to make the headlines, but it's actually the safest mode of transportation," Wells said.

Deyoe agreed.

"It's like airplanes," he said. "They're the safest way to travel, but because of just the vast number and just how precious the cargo is, any time it happens it's going to be headline stories."

The Liberty bus wreck happened just before 8:30 Monday morning. A bus carrying about 50 elementary students careened through a busy intersection, killing the drivers of two vehicles it hit. The bus driver and more than 20 children were injured.

The crash and what caused it were still under investigation Wednesday.

Wells said although she didn't know what happened with the driver, she guessed something went wrong that was beyond the driver's control. It would be unlikely for an experienced driver, familiar with her route and current on bus maintenance checks, to have something like that happen otherwise.

"It scares me because this was a lady that had driven for seven years," Wells said. "She wasn't new, so she probably did this every day."

Commenting has been disabled for this item.