It could be five years before school buses that don't meet federal safety standards are off Utah roads, according to the state director of pupil transportation.

Kelvin Clayton said that given high school-age population growth and Legislature's refusal during its last session to give $2 million to a program that could have helped finance the purchase of new buses, Utah school districts may be forced to keep some of the old buses until 1994."If the program would have been funded we could have alleviated the problem in two to three years," Clayton said.

Clayton's statement came in the wake of National Transportation Safety Board's recommendations made this week that said states should set deadlines to end the use of an estimated 77,000 buses that were built before April 1, 1977. That is about 22 percent of all of the school buses in use.

The report comes after the panel's inquiry into the May 1988 head-on collision that killed 24 children and three adults aboard a Kentucky church bus. A drunken driver traveling the wrong direction, a blocked doorway, too few exits, flammable seat covers and unprotected gas tanks were blamed for the deaths.

A Deseret News investigation last year revealed that one-third of Utah school buses are pre-1977 and there is little state regulation of the untold number of privately-owned buses that fall into the category. Since that investigation, about 95 aging school buses have been retired, reducing the number to 385 of 1,615 total school buses or 24 percent, Clayton said.

Davis, Jordan and Granite school districts remain among those districts with the most old buses . High-growth Davis District has retired seven while adding 10 new buses this year. Granite has removed seven from service while Jordan has kept all of its 57 pre-1977 buses, a state report says.

In its report, the NTSB recommended that schools replace bus seat covers that aren't fire retardant, install pop-out window exits in older buses and reinforce fuel tanks and roof and body joints. The report also recommended that more "wrong way" signs be installed on divided highways.

Clayton called some of the suggestions impractical for the state and disagreed with the need for others. For example, money is better spent trying to replace the older buses than undertaking expensive refurbishing operations to replace seat covers and reinforce fuel tanks. He also believes that the pop-out windows may be unsafe in the event of a rollover.

"Basically we are trying to get rid of the older buses first," Clayton said.

Jack Graviet, transportation director of the Davis School District and member of a national group that sets school bus safety standards, said his district is currently installing pop-out windows on 18 of its old buses at a cost of $2,750. He said the district has decided not to reinforce gas tanks and bodies because bus companies rescind warranties and won't accept liability for the buses if alterations are made to the bodies.

Pre-1977 buses in Utah do not need adjustments to their roofs, because the state is one of three that requires extra reinforcement in roof construction, Clayton said.

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Number of pre-1977 buses retired last year in districts that had high percentages.

District Buses retired Total pre-1977

Davis 7 48

Jordan 0 57

Murray 4 0

Granite 7 36

Garfield 0 8

Nebo 11 24

Wasatch 1 11

Wayne 3 3

Iron 4 16

Source: State Office of Education and district transportation directors.