Schools follow safety guidelines

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, August 22, 2007

After four Huntsville students died in a school bus wreck on Nov. 20, 2006, Gov. Bob Riley formed the Governor&8217;s Study Group on School Bus Seat Belts. The results of that task force has led to the decision to commission an Alabama university to conduct a three-year study on seatbelts in school buses.

Neither the Demopolis City School system nor the Linden City School system has its own bus system. According to Demopolis Middle School Principal Clarence Jackson, most students live within city limits and are able to find rides home or carpool with others.

For students who live outside the city limits, transportation may be provided by West Alabama Transportation buses or Marengo County Schools buses.

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According to Marengo County Schools Transportation Director J.B. Qualls, there are 40 predetermined routes for students who need transportation to and from school.

He said the majority of the routes serve the five Marengo County schools, but several buses serve both of the county&8217;s city school systems.

Regardless of whether or not students use the buses, the state mandates safety rules for the school buses.

Gina Johnston, federal programs director for Demopolis City Schools, said other drills are supposed to be conducted each time a bus is used for a field trip.

Even with these precautions in place, the findings from the Governor&8217;s Study Group highlighted statistics collected by the Alabama Department of Public Safety related to school bus accidents. Between 1996 and 2006, there were 1.4 million vehicle crashes in Alabama, with 4,201 of them involving school buses. Of the 4,201 bus-related crashes, there were 669 injuries of some kind and 21 people killed.

In response to these findings, the task force voted Monday to commission a study on seat belts on buses.

The three-year study would be performed by an Alabama university and would use 10 to 15 school buses equipped with safety belts, which would go over shoulders and across laps. The selected university will have to wrap up the study by Sept. 30, 2010.

Task force member Joe McInnes, the state&8217;s transportation director, said, &8220;Three years seems like a long time.&8221;

But state Superintendent of Education Joe Morton, chairman of the task force, said it&8217;s not when compiling data that will help the study group chart the best course for Alabama students.

Another cause for the study to be conducted was in response to the death of four Huntsville students last year.

California, Florida, Louisiana, New Jersey and New York have seat belt requirements for school buses. Texas enacted a law in June that requires buses purchased after Aug. 31, 2010, to have lap and shoulder belts. North Carolina is conducting a study similar to Alabama&8217;s.

The state Legislature has allocated $750,000 to start Alabama&8217;s study. Universities must submit their proposals by Oct. 19.

Morton said the study will involve buses that run urban routes with busy highways and frequent stops, as well as buses that run rural routes along county roads with miles between stops.

The buses will have cameras front and rear to see whether students use the belts and what effects they have.

Equipping buses with safety belts takes more room for each student, and the buses carry about 30 percent fewer students than traditional buses without belts, Morton said.

The school systems that will use the buses have not been selected, but Moore said she would like for Huntsville to be included.

Associated Press writer Phillip Rawls contributed to this report.