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Sitting Tight : Concerned Parents in the Las Virgenes Unified School District Persuade Officials to Try New Kind of Bus Safety Restraint

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Chris Hardeman says a little prayer every time one of her daughters gets on a school bus.

The Agoura Hills mother is concerned that the lack of seat belts could result in her daughter being thrown headfirst into a seat, a window or another student in the event of a crash. She is not soothed by California Highway Patrol studies which show that taking a bus to school is 13 times safer than riding in any other type of vehicle.

“The statistics don’t mean anything to me because all it takes is one accident in which it’s your child who gets hurt,” Hardeman said. “You just think that hopefully nothing will happen to them this time. You just say a little prayer and away they go.”

Frustrated by government reports that seat belts may make riding buses more dangerous, Hardeman and like-minded parents in the Las Virgenes Unified School District persuaded school administrators to become the first district in California to try a controversial new kind of safety restraint.

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Manufacturers say the pull-down safety bars--like the restraints used on roller coasters--do not have the same drawbacks as the traditional lap seat belts.

The so-called R-Bar can be quickly released in case of a fire, said Michael Dunn, vice president of marketing at Micho Industries in Lompoc, and is positioned at the upper-thigh level to minimize the chance of abdominal injuries during a collision.

The CHP and federal transportation agencies have no position on whether buses would be made safer by the installation of R-Bars.

“There has been some concern that the bar may lock in place in some types of accidents and that the kids could get trapped,” said Assemblyman Richard Katz (D-Sylmar), Transportation Committee chairman. “And the major concern if there is a fire is to get young kids out of the bus as quickly as possible.”

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Dunn said simulated crashes conducted by independent testing companies have shown that the bars would not trap anyone and that the product, combined with extra padding on the backs of seats, could save lives.

But the bars have been installed on only a handful of buses nationwide and never have been tested in a real crash, he said.

Prompted by petitions signed by several hundred parents, the school board voted unanimously earlier this month to allow manufacturer Micho to install R-Bars free of charge on one bus for a three-month trial period.

After the trial period, the board could elect to have the bars installed on all 37 buses contracted from Laidlaw Transit, at an estimated cost of about $70 per student, assistant district Supt. Don Zimring said.

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Lobbying by parents helped bring about laws in New York and New Jersey requiring that seat belts be installed on all school buses. But Clifford Speck of the New York Department of Transportation’s Vehicle Safety Bureau said only about a dozen of New York’s 500 school districts have made the use of seat belts mandatory.

In California and other states, many proposals to require school bus seat belts have fizzled--despite emotional campaigns by parents--after officials reviewed a 1987 study by the National Transportation Safety Board that questioned the effectiveness of seat belts. That study concluded that school buses are relatively safe and that lap seat belts could cause more injuries than they prevent.

During the last 20 years, eight children in California have been killed while riding school buses, and 76 have been seriously injured, according to the CHP. During that time, school buses traveled more than 5 billion miles.

“Obviously, one death on a school bus is one death too many,” said Ron Kinney, director of the state Department of Education’s school transportation unit. “But if you really want to improve safety, you’ll replace buses built before 1977 and then get into some good driver training programs.”

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Federal regulations imposed in 1977 mandated that new buses be reinforced to withstand greater impacts and rollovers, and that they be equipped with large rear-view mirrors, two emergency exits, top-quality hydraulic brakes and padded, fire-retardant seats.

About a third of the 22,000 school buses on the road in California in January were built before 1977. All Laidlaw buses were built after that year, and those serving the Las Virgenes district were bought new in 1992, said Teresa Young, Laidlaw’s project manager for the area.

Many government officials seem convinced that school buses built these days are as safe as they can be.

“I’m sure we are losing more kids on bicycles or in pedestrian crosswalks,” said John Green, school pupil safety coordinator for the CHP. “But there’s something about parents and school buses. Maybe they feel that buses are their only link to the schools, so that’s where they focus all of their concerns. I don’t know why they won’t look at the facts.”

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A Safe Ride to School State and school officials say riding school buses is one of the safest forms of transportation, with only eight deaths on California buses during the past 20 years. While they have taken no position on a new type of seat restraint, called the R-Bar, government agencies suggest increased efforts to make sure buses comply with safety standards.

Adopting Federal Safety Standards Regulations adopted in 1977 set higher standards for school bus construction. As of January, about two-thirds of buses operating in California were built after the guidelines were imposed. Some highlights: Windows: Easier release for emergency exit. Interior: Burn-resistant materials used in seating compartment Mirrors: Starting in December, federal authorities will require mirrors enabling drivers to see from ground-level up, around the front corners and near the rear tires on both sides. Body: Improvements on joints that hold panels together. Body: Structural strength requirements for rollover protection. Fuel system: Higher standards for buses over 10,000 pounds Seating: Padding and construction standards for crash protection. Brakes: Hydraulic system requirements increased. Sources: California Highway Patrol, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, National Transportation Safety Board


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