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National board looks at bus safety standards
Local transportation directors urge caution as school year approaches
Austin Tompkins upholsters a bus seat at the Hall County bus shop as school buses get prepared for the upcoming new school year. Tompkins is part of a crew that readies hundreds of seats in the Hall County School System fleet of buses.

Federal regulators are considering new safety standards and technologies for school buses, while locally all motorists are being urged to practice caution on the roads throughout the upcoming school year.

The National Transportation Safety Board met Tuesday to look at findings from two school bus accidents last year involving student deaths in New Jersey and Florida.

Both of those accidents occurred at intersections. Gainesville’s transportation director Jerry Castleberry said that the biggest safety issues happen outside of a school bus.

He said that once a year, the system does a count of people not obeying the stop sign on the school bus.

“I think we may have had 38 violations (in one day last year),” he said.

Hall County conducts the same study, and the results from 2013 were staggering.

“In that one day, we had a total of 97 vehicles that passed our buses in Hall County illegally,” said Hall’s transportation director, Jewel Armour. “Forty-three in the morning, and 54 in the afternoon. Eighty of them passed from the front, the rest passed from behind.”

The rule is to always stop when a bus’ red lights go on. There is also a visible stop sign that sticks out from the driver’s side of the bus. No matter what side of the road motorists are on, they are required to stop.

The only exception is on a four-lane road, Armour said, when there’s a median between the lanes. However, he warned that rule doesn’t apply to roads with turn lanes. “It has to be a physical barrier,” he said, like a grassy area or concrete wall.

In the Florida and New Jersey incidents, both occurred at intersections, with vehicles hitting the rear end of the school buses. The New Jersey accident involved a dump truck, while the Florida accident involved a tractor-trailer.

Both buses were equipped with seat belts, though the New Jersey victim was not wearing hers.

Castleberry said he is “not a big proponent” of seat belts on buses.

“Other than special education buses, because there’s a monitor on those,” he added.

Armour agreed.

“The belt itself can cause more damage internally than the child would suffer in most accidents,” he said.
Castleberry said that a seat belt can be more a hindrance than a help in the event of a needed evacuation, especially for younger children who may not be able to remove their seat belt without assistance.

Those incidents are extreme, both men said, and reiterated that the most dangerous environment around a school bus is outside of it.

Both school systems conduct safety drills with both bus drivers and students at various points throughout the year, stressing safety both on and around the bus. Castleberry recommended that students get to their bus pickup locations at least five minutes prior to the designated time as something that can prevent students from being not as aware of their surroundings. It also eliminates any confusion on the bus driver’s part.

He also recommended that parents provide small children with some form of identification kept in their backpack, in the event the child becomes lost or gets on the wrong bus.

The NTSB’s recommendation Tuesday was to set performance standards for new safety technology that allows vehicles to communicate with each other, and then potentially require the technology be installed in all new vehicles, saying it’s something that could reduce deaths and injuries.

Armour said every time a significant incident involving a school bus occurs, it creates safety regulations that have made buses safer over the years.

He used an example of a wreck in Kentucky from “years and years ago,” when a vehicle hit a bus where the gas tank was located. Because of that incident, gasoline caps now are made so that the heat melts the lid, relieving internal pressure so that the tank does not explode, he said.

Many safety features have been “results of accidents that have happened over the years,” Armour said.

The new technology NTSB recommended Tuesday allows vehicles to essentially communicate with each other via wireless networks, exchanging information on location, direction and speed. It’s being road-tested in Michigan, and is reportedly effective up to a range of about 1,000 feet.

The NTSB also called for a stricter system of ensuring thorough medical exams for bus drivers.

The New Jersey accident occurred when the bus driver, who reported taking several prescriptiondrugs and not getting a proper amount of sleep, pulled out into the intersection in front of the dump truck.

The dump truck driver was also speeding, and carrying a heavier load than recommended, contributing to the severity of the accident.

The Associated Press contributed to this report