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Fast Track : Bus Drivers Face Daily Hazards on School Runs

Times Education Writer

School bus driver Fernando Becerril, who has logged thousands of miles for the Los Angeles Unified School District, was on edge Tuesday. The rear-ending of a district bus by an allegedly drunk truck driver on the Ventura Freeway earlier in the morning had reminded him and other school bus operators just how dangerous their jobs could be.

“That 101 (freeway), it’s a nightmare,” he said during a break Tuesday at the district’s West San Fernando Valley bus yard. “It’s one of the most overcrowded freeways in the system.”

The trucks that follow too closely are one of his biggest worries. “They make you nervous. When I see a caravan coming, I slow down and let them go (by),” said Becerril, who has driven district buses for 11 years.

Precious Cargo

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Leona Mason, who has been driving bus routes for the district for 16 years, said drivers “really have to be on the ball. People are constantly cutting us off. They don’t realize what precious cargo we have.”

Tuesday’s accident occurred when a car cut in front of the bus, which was headed toward a Woodland Hills elementary school. Bus driver Derrick Ford braked to avoid hitting the car, but a meat truck behind him failed to stop in time and slammed into the rear of the bus. Inside were 47 children.

District officials say the accident, which caused minor injuries to the driver, a teacher’s aide and 27 students, was an unusual occurrence. Considering the number of school bus trips made daily, officials said, the district’s safety record is very good, particularly in comparison to that of private bus companies, which provide about 50% of the district’s bus service.

Every school day, there are 1,500 district buses on the road during peak traffic hours, transporting 80,000 pupils who, for a variety of reasons, rely on the district to transport them to schools far from their own neighborhoods. Altogether, district and private buses make about 5,000 trips a day, carrying students to and from school and on field trips.

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Overcrowded Schools

About 20,000 students are bused because their home schools are overcrowded. Most of them travel long distances, from areas near downtown and in the district’s southeast region to schools in the San Fernando Valley and on the Westside.

According to district figures, district-owned buses were involved in 33 accidents in which pupils were injured in 1987-88, compared to 63 for the private buses. Most of the injuries were minor cuts and bruises, transportation director Bud Dunevant said. A total of 511 bus accidents occurred that year, 206 involving district buses and 305 involving private operators. Damage in most was minimal.

In 50 years of transporting students, no student has died as a result of a school bus accident, according to Dunevant.

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Statewide, eight students have died in school bus accidents over the last 20 years, according to Ron Kinney, a school transportation official in the California State Department of Education.

Most district bus drivers interviewed Tuesday said they doubted that anything could have been done to prevent the Ventura Freeway accident or the injuries.

Several drivers said they did not think seat belts, which are not required in California school buses, would have prevented injuries. Becerril said the extra padding and higher seats now required in school buses do more to prevent injuries than seat belts would.

But Ford, the driver of the bus involved in the accident, was not so sure. Asked if seat belts might have prevented some of the injuries, he said, “That’s a good question.”

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Study on Seat Belts

Recent studies by the California Highway Patrol and the National Academy of Sciences found insufficient evidence to conclude that belts would enhance bus safety, the Department of Education’s Kinney said.

Some drivers said they fear that some students would use seat belts as weapons against other students or the driver.

Bus driver Mason said she thought belts might help prevent some injuries, “but you cannot make children wear them. They can undo them. You would never get to school if you kept stopping to tell them to put the belts on.”

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Times staff writer Michael Connelly contributed to this story.


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