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Bus safety panel mum on proposal
Group '90 percent sure' of recommendation, superintendent says; public barred from final discussion

By Desiree Hunter
Associated Press Writer

MONTGOMERY — A study group appointed by Gov. Bob Riley after a deadly school bus accident in Huntsville expressed concerns Wednesday about retrofitting existing buses with seat belts or requiring lap belts without shoulder restraints.

After the panel barred the public from its final discussion, State School Superintendent Joe Morton said the group is "90 percent" sure of what it will recommend — but students and their parents won't find that out immediately.

Riley, who left for Germany Saturday on an industry recruiting trip, created the seven-member panel in December with instructions to study whether seat belts on Alabama school buses will make children safer.

After a period of public discussion, the panel met in private, apparently for crucial decisions on it wants to recommend for Alabama, where 8,500 buses transport some 375,000 students across the state each day.

Riley had asked the group to report to him by March 2 so he can have the information before the Legislature convenes March 6.

"I think we now are able to write a report that we will share with all the members before we give it to the governor," Morton said. "Progress today was monumental and I think we're pretty much on time. We'll meet the deadline of March 2 or come awfully close to meeting it."

Morton said the attorney general's office and legal counsel determined the study group does not come under the state's open meetings law. He said they preferred to hold the private session so the governor would not hear a news report about their advice before they could present it to him.

"I hope you would agree with that point of view because otherwise I don't know how we're going to arrive at recommendations that we can give to the governor that he might not pick up on AP in Germany somewhere," Morton told the group. "He wanted us to deliver those to him."

Four Lee High School students died after the school bus they were riding in plunged over an overpass on Interstate-565 and nose-dived nearly 30 feet. The bus was not equipped with seat belts for passengers.

Study group members were adamant Wednesday that lap belts alone would not be adequate and argued against retrofitting old buses with new seat belts because that might affect the bus' warranties and could cause compatibility problems.

"A school bus right now is absolutely the safest mode of transportation for a student from point 'A' to point 'B' and it appears to me from here today that no one's really interested in purely lap belts," Public Safety Director Col. Chris Murphy said following the meeting. "We heard a lot of testimony that lap belts alone actually complicate the issue as opposed to making it safer."

More than a dozen bus manufacturers, federal transportation safety experts and officials from states that have grappled with the issue of school bus seat belts spoke at a two-day hearing in Huntsville earlier this month.

Some said requiring seat belts would cost millions, but might not improve safety because few students would use them and might cause more harm than good if it reduced ridership.

Morton said information from that hearing was used by the group to come to "a consensus on some concepts."

"I would say before today we were about halfway," he said. "I would say now, today, we're probably 90 percent. I think to the final construction of the product and the editing of the product, that's the additional 10 percent."

The group's recommendation will help determine whether Riley asks legislators to require seat belts on school buses. California, Florida, Louisiana, New Jersey and New York are the only five states that have seat belt requirements for buses.

State education transportation director Joe Lightsey said Alabama's bus fleet is among the safest in the nation because it's one of the newest, with no buses more than a decade old.

Huntsville City Schools Superintendent Ann Roy Moore said the panel's discussion on bus safety was not limited to seat belts and included other safety components such as on-board monitors and bus driver training.

Board of education member Mary Jane Caylor of Huntsville, a member of the study group, said making sure both students and adults are properly educated about safety matters will be a priority regardless of the panel's recommendation.

Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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