Alabama study prompts new school bus safety guidelines

Governor Riley and Secretary Barrett unveiled the new safety guidelines Wednesday.
Governor Riley and Secretary Barrett unveiled the new safety guidelines Wednesday.

By Mark Bullock - bio | email

DEATSVILLE, AL (WSFA) - A pilot program in Alabama is helping to establish new school bus safety guidelines nationwide.

Governor Bob Riley started the program after a deadly accident in Huntsville two years ago. Four high school students died when their school bus plunged 30 feet from an interstate overpass.

The federal government announced the new safety standards Wednesday at Pine Level Elementary School in Deatsville, a suburb of Montgomery.

Students at Pine Level have been part of the state's pilot program, which is testing the effectiveness of various types of seat belts on school buses.

"We have 12 of these (specially-equipped) buses running all over the state of Alabama," Governor Riley explained.

But even before that pilot program ends, the federal government is using preliminary findings to create new safety standards for school districts nationwide.

"We're going to continue our study," Governor Riley said Wednesday. "But in the interim, when other busses are being made today, now we have a set of guidelines."

The guidelines include raising the height of seat backs in large buses. Federal officials say the additional four inches will help prevent students from being thrown from their seats.

For small buses, which are more vulnerable in crashes, the guidelines require manufacturers to add shoulder belts to already mandatory lap belts.

"These small buses do not absorb the impact of a crash as well as large buses," said U.S. Deputy Transportation Secretary Thomas Barrett.

The new guidelines do not require seat belts on large buses because the belts could limit the number of passengers.

"The last thing we want to do is force parents to choose other less safe ways to get their children to school," Barrett explained.

However, the transportation department is establishing appropriate government standards for school systems that voluntarily choose to add belts to large buses.

None of the new requirements will take effect until 2011. And even then, they will apply only to new buses. School systems will not have to retro-fit older models.

Federal highway money will be available to local systems to offset any additional costs associated with the new rules. Montgomery Public School officials say they expect rise in seat height will translate into an additional $200 to the overall cost of a new bus.

Officials pointed out Wednesday the new requirements will make riding a school bus even safer than it already is. On average, there are six school bus fatalities each year in the U.S., compared to more than 41,000 deaths in other vehicles.