Thursday, August 7, 2008

Westchester Guardian/Catherine Wilson.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Catherine Wilson, Bureau Chief
Northern Westchester

School Bus Concerns

The sharp increases in fuel costs have already had a dramatic impact on local drivers, the County Bee-Line bus service, and trucking companies. But this September, one other group will face a fuel crisis – local school bus companies and the school districts they serve.

School bus safety is first and foremost in the public’s minds when it comes to the transportation of our area’s children. Fortunately the recent crash of two school buses on I-95 was an exception. School bus accidents are rare events. According to the New York State Department of Motor Vehicles, school vehiclerelated accidents account for fewer than 1% of the total motor vehicle accidents, and less than 10% of those accidents resulted in serious injuries.

“School buses are the safest form of transportation,” Joan Corwin, the President of Chappaqua Transportation, told The Guardian. “School buses are safer than escalators. Children are 60% safer riding in a school bus than in a car.” Chappaqua Transportation provides school buses for the Chappaqua and Bedford School districts.

Ms. Corwin is facing a host of unique issues in the upcoming 2008/2009 school year, the high cost of fuel chief among them. “Our costs have
increased 725% over last year” Corwin said. “Part of that is we have doubled our operations since we’ve added new routes. But the biggest
increase is the cost of our fuel. And unfortunately we have to absorb a lot of that increase ourselves”. The revenues earned by school bus
companies are determined by the contracts from the school districts they serve. But those contracts can vary widely from district to district
since there are no set standards.

“We have a one-year contract with the Chappaqua School District,” Corwin noted, “but a five year contract with Bedford.” She explained,
“Chappaqua provides the fuel for our contract with them, but Bedford does not. And Bedford will only cover my costs for the mileage
from when we pick up the first child to the drop-off of the last child. So they do not cover ‘deadhead’ miles from our bus station to the town – a 40 minute trip each way. Any annual increases in my fuel charges in the contract are linked to the state’s Consumer Price Index (CPI). That CPI was set at only 4% in May. Fuel costs have risen far more than 4% since then. Frankly, I’m worried since New York State laws currently only allow for adjustment to the CPI rate once a year”.

Coupled with rising fuel costs, Corwin has to deal with route changes in both districts. The Bedford Board of Education has proposed
limiting bus transportation to only those students who live over ½ a mile from their schools. Children within the ½ mile cut-off would have
to walk to school or be transported by their parents. One local parent told The Guardian “we do not have sidewalks so there is no place
for our children to walk to school.

So we will need more police on the street to protect them. If the parents chose to drive the children to school there will be more cars at the
schools while the buses are trying to drop off the other students. Reducing the bus routes may save money in one area but it will create havoc
for the schools, the drivers, and the town”. However, Mart Betz, the Assistant Superintendent for Business and Administration Services for the Bedford School District, noted that the ½ mile limit was always the district policy. “In the past we’ve accommodated those students who lived within the ½ mile radius since we’ve had space available on the buses.

We pay per bus per day. So we try to maximize the use of each bus – each bus may do a High School route then turn around and do an
elementary school route, then go to a private school, etc. So even if we had fewer students on one run, we’d still need the bus for the other runs so we could accommodate the students within the ½ mile on those routes. But we’ve noticed some population shifts recently – there is less ridership at the High School and Middle School levels so we can consolidate some of the runs to those schools. But the only way for
the district to actually save money is if we can eliminate a bus entirely so we have to look for ways to consolidate at the elementary level as
well. So we have to start enforcing the district policy”.

Betz noted that the school is working with parents to explore establishing ‘child safety zones’ for sections of the district that may be
too hazardous for a child to walk to school. The standards for child safety zones are set by the New York State Department of Transportation. Corwin agreed with Betz’s assessment of less ridership of students at High School levels. “They view the school bus as the ‘loser cruiser’” she said. “But with higher gas costs maybe that will change as more parents refuse to drive their kids to school and make them take the bus instead.”

School bus routes in Chappaqua face changes of a different sort. The town is undergoing a major construction project to upgrade a two-lane bridge on South Greeley Avenue. School buses are limited by law to the types of routes they may travel, for example, buses may not
utilize roads that will take them across unguarded railroad crossings. Therefore Corwin’s alternate routes are limited. “I am taking my
drivers out to see how we can navigate through town when there are major backups from the construction. Our large buses cannot make
the turns on some of the roads in town and we cannot go across the railroad tracks. One of our routes alone could have an extra five miles
added to it because of the bridge construction. The school district is working with us on the routes and the bus schedules and timetables,”
said Corwin. One of the alternatives he is looking at involves leaving the buses at some of the schools during the day to avoid bringing the buses back to the garage.

The school bus industry is lobbying Albany to eliminate their fuel taxes which are currently $0.70 a gallon for diesel fuel. The industry
is also recommending a four-day school week to conserve energy costs. So far their requests have been denied. “We don’t have many
options” Corwin notes. “The athletic programs are already set up for the school year and by law, any child participating in a school event must be transported to that event on a school bus. We do get paid for our mileage and waiting time for sports events but the fuel costs are already set by our contracts. However, we’ve already added a $200 surcharge for fuel for buses for class trips,” she said. Many school districts charge the students for the full cost of the school trips, including transportation, so those districts would pass any fuel surcharges along to their students and their families.

School trips and fuel surcharges are not the only school bus transportation costs facing local families. “School buses are covered under
New York State’s ‘No Fault’ laws” Corwin said. “So in the event of an accident, the costs are transferred to the parents’ personal car insurance to handle. If a parent does not have car insurance, then the insurance company of the vehicle that hit the bus must cover the child’s expenses. The law is for the protection of the school bus company – if 50 children are on a bus and are injured, an accident like that would put a bus company out of business,” she explained. Local parents should check their personal car insurance policies to assure their coverage is sufficient for any possible injuries to their child while being transported on a local school bus.

Many school districts provide their own transportation and do not outsource their bus needs to private contractors. Mr. Guy Elmore, the Supervisor of Transportation for the Byram Hills School District in Armonk commented on the advantages of having district control over student transportation.

“We face the same financial issues as private companies,” Elmore noted. He went on, “I projected costs of $2.75 a gallon for the 2007/2008 school year and $3.75 for 2008/2009. We’ve already exceeded those projections. We’ve gone from $2.01 a gallon in July of last year to $4.25 now. But since we’re a school district, we don’t have to pay taxes on the fuel we purchase, whereas the private companies have to pay taxes.”

There are other advantages to an in-house bus system for the local school districts. “Byram Hills pays the transportation costs of any school trips so the parents do not pay those costs. We can also deal with any disciplinary problems on the busses more quickly since we know everyone involved from the drivers to the school administration. We can afford to provide the safest busses possible. We have cameras on all of our buses and have automatic snow chains. We will spend more on the purchase of our buses – we buy buses that have their engines in the
rear, not the front. Those buses are more expensive, but safer.

We’re not going anywhere. A contractor could lose a contract or could quit a er a contract expires. They have to worry about absorbing the cost of a bus they may not be using a few years from now. We don’t. And we don’t have to worry about not having a contractor to transport our students – the Village of Hastings is facing that dilemma right now,” he said.

Elmore also noted that districts with their own in-house buses have an advantage in hiring employees, pointing out, “Technically our employees are state employees so they receive state benefits including pensions and health insurance if they work over 22 hours a week. That helps when we’re trying to attract good people. All of our employees really care about their job; we wouldn’t be here if we didn’t. I wouldn’t be in this business for 35 years if I didn’t love it!”

Everyone The Guardian spoke with on this issue stressed the safety of school bus transportation. “All of our buses have seat belts as required by law” Elmore said. “However, the students are not required to wear them unless a district adopts a policy mandating their use. We support any child who wants to wear seat belts but the current belts are lap belts, not the 3-point shoulder system used in cars. We support having a 3-point belt system on our buses to protect the students”. (Federal law now requires 3-point belts on new buses over 10,000 pounds). Elmore noted that the backs of the seats are designed to be energy absorbing. “They are designed to cave in if a child hits the back of the seat at full force” he said. “But if a child’s body pivots into the seat back, like while being restrained by a lap belt, the child can suffer injuries, even fatal ones.

The Canadian government recently did a study on school bus safety. They used crash-test dummies and ran a bus into a wall. The ‘students’ bodies pivoted from the lap belts and suffered injuries from impact into the seat backs. The lap belts do protect children if a bus flips over
– but that only happens in ½ of 1% of all bus crashes”. But Elmore stressed that New York State mandates the safest buses available. “A school bus in Kentucky was hit head on and its gas tank exploded. Many of the passengers died because the only way out was through the front door or a rear exit. Our buses have every type of escape route possible – we have escapes at each window and roof escapes as well as the front and rear exits”. (Roof escapes were recommended a er another fatal Kentucky tragedy when a bus crashed off a bridge and submerged into the river below).

State statistics show that the most dangerous part of the trip to and from school for students is not on the bus itself but before and after
the ride. Passing cars, idling cars at bus stops, and street crossings all pose hazards to local students. New York State traffic laws prohibit
vehicles from passing school buses (except in sections of New York City). Modern technology enables bus drivers to capture violators
– some large city districts have posted cameras on their buses to capture data on errant motorists.

Federal government regulations restrict the emissions from the buses but children standing at bus stops inhale exhaust fumes from parents
idling their cars at those stops. “I see parents driving their children to the end of their driveways to pick up a school bus” one driver told
The Guardian. “I’ve had to pick up students at stops that are jammed with idling cars. Any child standing at these stops has to inhale those
fumes. And all those cars block the view for the children and other traf-fic, especially when they’re large SUV’s or minivans.”

To protect our children both on and off the buses, all local school districts can hold assemblies with their students to stress school safety
issues. The Westchester County Board of Legislators is considering idling laws that, while meant to discourage wasteful energy use, would
also protect the health of children waiting at bus stops.

In addition, the Westchester County Department of Public Works has received a Traffic Safety Outreach Grant and provides safety information on its web site and materials, DVD’s, videos, and instruction to area schools. And while both parents and school bus drivers alike will be struggling with rising fuel costs in the upcoming school year, bus safety should not be one of their concerns. The national school bus accident rate is 0.02 per 100 million miles travelled. As Ms. Corwin informed The Guardian “the students are safer riding to school in my buses than in their parent’s car”.

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