On the snowy morning of Nov. 14 in Magna a car ran into the right side of an empty Granite School District bus, killing the young woman driving the car.
Although tragic, the crash nevertheless could have been much worse.If the car had hit only a few feet further back, the bus could have exploded. It was built before the federal government required fuel tank reinforcement.
If children had been aboard, the accident could have been every bit as devastating as the tragedy that occurred when a church bus exploded after a truck-bus collision in Carrollton, Ky., last May killing 27 children. The children didn't die from the impact of the crash. They died from smoke inhalation and burns caused when a fuel tank exploded and highly flammable seat material caught fire. A drunken driver, a blocked doorway, too few exits and unprotected gas tanks were blamed for the deaths.
Almost one-third of the buses that carry an estimated 147,000 Utah schoolchildren each day do not meet federal Department of Transportation safety standards designed to prevent such accidents. Even those standards might not be enough.
"Approximately 30 percent of our state fleet is not the state of art for school bus safety," says Kelvin C. Clayton, director of state pupil transportation. "That gives me a great deal of concern. It really bothers me to think that we would let that type of thing come about in our state."
Safeguards like gas tank barriers that can help prevent explosions, high-back padded seats that keep children from being catapulted during a quick stop and tougher specifications for joint construction are not included in the buses built before April 1, 1977.
From the most recent statistics available, of the 1,576 school buses used by Utah public school districts, 480 are pre-1977 models.
Both the Granite school bus crash and an October crash near Lewiston, Cache County, hint at the problem. For example, in the Cache County accident, a post-1977 bus probably prevented fatalities because of its high-back padded seats, Clayton said.
Among those school districts with the most outdated buses are Salt Lake, Jordan, Davis, Granite, Nebo and Wasatch . Garfield School District has the worst rec-ord, with 57 percent of its fleet of 14 buses built before 1977. Daggett and San Juan County school districts are the only two of Utah's 40 districts that don't use any pre-1977 buses.
"Within the last two or three years there has been tight budgets. Some of the districts have channeled funds away from transportation to other areas. There has been less purchase of buses in the last three years than for a long time," Clayton said.
The trade-in of substandard buses is delayed despite the fact the Legislature has discouraged it with a 10-year depreciation program. Districts don't receive money back for trading in buses older than 10 years, Clayton said.
"The problem is, as the district grows we have to keep the old ones," said Jack Graviet, transportation director in high-growth Davis district.
Graviet, who serves on the panel that sets national school bus safety standards, said educating school board members about safety problems may be the answer.
"I really think any school board member we have in the state would rate safety as No. 1. I think if they really understood the difference between pre- and post-1977 buses there would be no question in my mind that they would want to provide state-of-the art safety for students," Clayton said.
The Kentucky crash has raised questions about fire safety standards, even for post-1977 buses. Flammable seat materials, only two exits and the placement of bus fuel tanks have been among concerns raised.
For example, since the church bus crash, Kentucky has required that push-out windows be installed on school buses as extra emergency exits. Both Graviet and Clayton question the safety of the push-out windows during rollovers and because schoolchildren could easily open them during normal operation.
"I feel we have adequate exits on our buses," Clayton said. "I still feel containment is the best. In the history of accidents this Carrollton, Ky., thing is a freak accident," Clayton said.
Glenn Bryson, owner of a regional Bluebird bus dealership in Bountiful, said slide down windows on most buses are large enough escape routes for children.
There has also been the suggestion that the placement of gas tanks, even with reinforcement, is not safe enough. Some manufacturers have begun installing the tanks between the center frames of the bus.
"I don't see a need to have it right in the middle of the bus. If it is on the outside at least you have one side of the bus that students could be in, in case of a fire. Maybe they would have a little more time to get out of the bus," Clayton said.
Officials agree that material used to cover seats should be studied. Materials do not meet federal fire standards, Graviet said. A test conducted by Owens-Corning Fiberglass showed that it takes only 31/2 minutes for bus seats to become engulfed in flames. During the test, temperatures exceeded 1,400 degrees inside the bus.
The move to diesel engines in buses also improves safety. The Granite bus involved in the crash last month used diesel and may not have exploded even if the fuel tank had been ruptured. Diesel has a lower flash point. While many districts are moving to diesel use, some are still dragging their feet. Jordan School District's fleet of 136 buses is entirely fueled by gasoline, although officials say that is changing.
Despite the tragic accident in Kentucky and concerns about updating school buses in the state, school transportation officials say that school bus transportation is still the safest way to go.
"School transportation, as long as you keep it in the school bus, is the safest form of transportation. It is eight times safer than transporting a student in a passenger car," Clayton said.