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Bus panel seeks pilot study
In wake of Huntsville school tragedy, group calls for faster action than feds’

By Desiree Hunter
Associated Press Writer

MONTGOMERY — A study group appointed by Gov. Bob Riley after a deadly school bus accident in Huntsville recommended Wednesday that the state fund a $1.4 million pilot study over three years to determine if seat belts on buses make children safer.

The seven-member group also recommended that Riley lead a state charge pressuring the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, or NHTSA, to act faster regarding bus safety.

The agency, which makes safety recommendations and sets requirements, submitted a report to Congress on bus safety belts in 2002 but new regulations aren’t expected to be implemented before 2013.

“We think that’s too long a wait for improved guidelines for student safety,” State School Superintendent Joe Morton told Riley during the meeting at the Capitol. “Under your leadership ... we think that would be a great cause to champion nationwide. Let’s get NTHSA moving on issuing these standards.”

An Alabama university will be chosen to create and oversee the pilot program, which would include 10 new buses outfitted with lap-shoulder seat belts. The buses would be used at various school systems around the state.

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 at the beginning of February.

California, Florida, Louis-iana, New Jersey and New York are the only five states that have seat belt requirements for buses.

Study group members said the pilot program would provide information about the extent to which students would use the belts and their behavior on buses that are equipped with the restraint. They said it would also give the state the opportunity to be a front-runner in the national debate, providing information that could be used in NHTSA’s guidelines.

School board member Mary Jane Caylor of Huntsville said public interest on the issue has been extremely high, with board members receiving calls and e-mails from people offering opinions both for and against seat belts. She said it was important for the state to be proactive.

The study would cost $750,000 in the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1, Morton said. The cost for the second year will drop to $329,220 and the third year cost is estimated at $342,050, anticipating an increase in fuel costs.

Costs include hiring additional drivers, bus aides to monitor students and make sure they’re wearing the seat belts, and more buses to compensate for capacity that will be lost with the addition of belts.

Four Lee High School students died after the school bus they were riding in plunged over an overpass in downtown Huntsville and nose-dived nearly 30 feet on Nov. 20. The bus was not equipped with seat belts for passengers.

Riley said he was nearly “100 percent” confident legislators would approve funding the study.

“I think it’s going to give us quantifiable information that we would otherwise not have,” he said. “When they get on that bus, they’re ours and it’s up to us to take every possible step we can to make sure they’re safe.

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

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