When Utah parents put handicapped students on the school bus, they may be placing them in danger, because federal bus safety regulations don't apply to them.

A soon-to-be released study found that federal bus safety regulations adopted in 1976 exempted the handicapped but promised specific regulations as soon as possible. That never happened. In Utah, that has meant a hodgepodge approach in designing safety equipment and handling students.Lyle Stephens, who operates a bus service for the handicapped in Michigan, said transportation officials weren't listening until parts of the report were funneled to members of Congress. The study, which Stephens helped write, is funded by the Michigan Department of Education and looks at problems in all 50 states.

"It is a real problem that needs to be addressed. Every time we have a different wheelchair size, we have to make a new bracket. It is a hodgepodge to deal with everything from a stroller to heavy battery-powered wheelchairs to a coffin-like box. It is a process of invention," said Jack Graviet, director of transportation for the Davis School District.

Graviet, a member of the national panel that makes school bus regulations, has lobbied for several years to get the federal Transportation Department to establish national safety standards for equipment and child care. The Davis District serves many handicapped children because its handicapped programs have attracted Air Force families with handicapped children who request transfers to Hill Air Force Base.

"The federal government has said you have to serve the handicapped kids in school and have to provide transportation when it is necessary to access a program. Then they in effect said they exempt them from the safety issues. That's rather contradictory," Stephens said.

Because of the lack of federal standards there is great variance nationwide about how the handicapped are transported, and some of the methods are deficient. Most children are transported side-facing because it is less expensive. Stephens said front-facing is safer because of the way the body flexes. There are also no standards for wheelchair lifts, which should have features like side rails.

"Children fall off frequently. When a kid falls 40 inches and he's a paraplegic and doesn't have a way to protect himself, he's at a substantial risk," Stephens said.

Lightweight wheelchairs also present problems. The chairs, often designed to collapse for convenience, will also collapse from the impact of a collision. Securing devices for wheelchairs range from rubber straps to small belts. None of the attachments held up when they were tested in a 30-mph impact, Stephens said.

Other nations, including Canada, Australia, the Netherlands and West Germany, have clear safety standards and use standardized equipment.

While Stephens said Utah's implementation of basic handicapped-transportation guidelines has put the state far ahead of what other states are doing, national standards are needed to help reduce hefty liability insurance premiums and make equipment cheaper.

As medical science has saved more lives, school districts have had to deal with more handicapped children. Moving some students from institutions to community-based programs has also increased the burden, Stephens said.

Because of that fact, national standards are needed for health care and personal safety as well. Since con-gressional exposure to Stephens' report, the National Highway Transportation Safety Board is working on new regulations.

In Utah, another safety concern has surfaced with the transportation of students at the State Schools for the Deaf and Blind in Ogden. State Pupil Transportation Director Kelvin Clayton said the schools are compromising the safety of students because they have contracted for cheaper van transportation rather than safer school buses.

"They have contracted everything into small vans that give those children much less safe transportation than so-called `normal' children," Clayton said. "It just is false economy and is not the safest form of transportation."

Clayton said the smaller vans are not required to be painted yellow, do not have safety lights and do not have the fire and collision protections built into newer school buses.

Thomas S. Bannister, the schools' superintendent, said that because his schools' students are few and far between, it would be too expensive to use school buses to pick all of them up.

"I don't think we are compromising safety. I don't know what he means by false economy. If I had my choice I would take the opportunity to do some of these kinds of things. I am not sure I have that choice," Bannister said.

Bannister said the schools have been trying to establish bus service through school districts and hope to study the transportation issue next year. He said he would be willing to check the contract with the schools' pupil hauler and see if the five-year renewable contract could be adjusted to require vans be equipped with lights and painted yellow.