Like a game of Russian roulette, the risks that school buses pose to Utah children should scare school boards, state lawmakers, and federal officials into action. A Deseret News investigation has disclosed that school bus safety has been too long pushed aside and ignored.

For example, each time one of Utah's children board a school bus there is almost a one-in-three chance that the bus they ride was built before federal safety regulations went into effect in 1977. Even more frightening are the safety of old school buses given a second life by private organizations and the hodge-podge approach the federal government has taken toward the transportation of Utah's handicapped students.State and district school transportation directors are justified in their alarm at the large percentage of substandard buses on the road. Elected school officials who have remained ignorant of safety problems or haven't given bus replacement the priority it deserves should become alarmed. The message should be clear: Retire all school buses that were built before 1977. If that is not feasible, boards should at least consider retrofitting old buses with gas tank barriers and high-back padded seats.

At the state and federal level, lawmakers should more effectively address problems associated with school buses, including the fact a school bus can easily become a fire trap because of too few exits and highly flammable seat covers. Seat covers should be phased out or neutralized with fiberglass stuffing. Although state officials have taken a position against push-out windows in school buses, they should watch how effective a law in Kentucky requiring them is. If they work in Kentucky, Utah should consider requiring them, too.

The state should for the first time also begin addressing problems associated with private organizations' operation of old school buses. The state should discourage the resale of old school buses to private organizations. If pre-1977 buses are sold, lawmakers ought to make it mandatory that buyers of such buses understand the dangers inherent in them. A warning label or disclosure form would be helpful.

The state should find out which organizations use buses to haul children and eliminate a "double standard" in an inspection program between private and public schools and private organizations. Buses owned by church groups, for example, should be inspected three times a year - the same as public and private school buses. Enforcement of an existing law requiring private organizations to paint their buses other than yellow should move from spot checks by the Highway Patrol to a checklist item on state safety inspections.

Let's also stop a frightening trend many schools, including the deaf and blind schools in Ogden, are taking toward using smaller vans to circumvent safety standards. The smaller vans, if used to transport school children, should be required to be painted yellow, have protected fuel tanks, safety lights, and other features that are standard on school buses.

Finally, the federal government should remedy its irresponsible commitment to handicapped student transportation. In 1976 the government exempted handicapped students from federal school bus standards and said they would enact them later. But they never did and now Utah's handicapped children are at risk because of the lack of such standards.