School buses are safer now, but drunks still pose threat

Sunday, May 10, 1998

The Cincinnati Enquirer

More emergency exits, flame-retardant seats and floor coverings and a caged fuel tank make Kentucky's school buses safer than they were 10 years ago.

10 worst school-bus accidents
LocationDateNo. killed
Carrollton, Ky.May 14, 198827
Alton, TexasSept. 21, 198921
Poinsett County, Ark.March 25, 19839
Flathead County, Mont.Jan. 21, 19849
Fox River Grove, Ill.Oct. 25, 19957
Greene County, N.C.May 31, 19857
Levy County, Fla.Aug. 28, 19876
Fisher County, TexasDec. 8, 19785
Chenango County, N.Y.April 5, 19835
Carroll County, Ark.Sept. 13, 19855
10 years later
10 years ago, 27 people died

Larry Mahoney still won't talk

Infographic: Collision course

The success of additional federal requirements moved the school bus safety issue off the National Transportation Safety Board's most-wanted list of hazards on Thursday.

The problem now in Kentucky is no longer school bus design but drunken driving, national officials said.

"Obviously there has been a tremendous amount of progress in bus safety and the risks are lower then they were 10 years ago," said Barry Sweedler, an NTSB official who investigated the 1988 Carrollton bus crash that killed 27 people. "What I want to point out is that this is the worst drunk-driving crash in U.S. history as far as we are concerned because of the large number of people who died -- and Kentucky still has some of the poorest laws for dealing with drunk driving."

The bus that went up in flames at Carrollton was on a 1977 Ford chassis. A Radcliff church, First Assembly of God, bought the bus as surplus property from Meade County Schools.

The fuel tank was torn from its mounts and punctured in the collision with a pickup driven by Larry Mahoney, who was drunk and on the wrong side of Interstate 71.

So many people died in the Carrollton crash because they didn't have enough time to get off the bus. Federal and state safety officials concluded there were not enough exits.

"We feel that if that bus had the new features to get occupants out, we wouldn't have had that tragedy," Mr. Sweedler said. "That's really where the attention needed to be placed."

Victims' families and crash survivors are planning a ceremony on Thursday, the anniversary.

The event, organized by Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) and billed as a Reunion of Hope, will not be in Radcliff or in Carrollton, 100 miles to the northeast, where the crash occurred.

It will instead be 30 miles north of Radcliff in Louisville, where survivors, many with horrific injuries, were treated.

"It's a way for the victims of this crash to once again show our gratitude and appreciation for those who were there, that went above and beyond the call of duty," Karolyn Nunnallee, national president of MADD, said. Her daughter Patty, 10, was the youngest of those killed.

Besides, "some of the Radcliff people . . . don't like attention being drawn back to the crash," said Mrs. Nunnallee, of Fort Meade, Fla.

Kentucky now requires all school buses to have nine emergency exits -- more than any other federal and state standards. That means front and back doors, a side door, four emergency windows and two roof exits. The bus that crashed at Carrollton had only front and back exits.

That bus was built just months before new safety standards went into effect. Kentucky does not own any buses built before January 1978, state pupil transportation director Mike Roscoe said.

Buses used by Kentucky schools must also have a cage around the fuel tank, a stronger frame and roof to resist crumpling on impact and rollover, high-backed seats, extra seat padding, a fuel system that slows leaks, flame-retardant seats and floors, reflective tape on all emergency exits, and strobe lights on the exterior. Schools also must have a diesel-powered fleet.

Of the state's 9,678 buses, 8 percent are powered by the more flammable gasoline. Those buses are used as backups and are not used for field trips.

Since April 1, the state has purchased 462 buses in an effort to phase out those using gasoline. Mr. Roscoe said that within three years the gasoline fleet should be retired.

"We travel 101 million miles a year transporting students and I believe they are riding the safest buses in the nation," Mr. Roscoe said.

Critics, including families of Carrollton victims, say they want manufacturers to move the location of fuel tanks from just under the bus' front door to its rear or middle.

Mr. Roscoe said that's not possible in a conventional school bus, where the engine is in the front. And the high incident of accidents where a bus is rear-ended by another vehicle -- 300 a year -- would make a rear fuel tank even more dangerous.

There are rear-engine buses with fuel tanks in the middle that districts can purchase. But those buses can't be used for long trips. Liz Neblett, a spokeswoman for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, said that school buses are considered a fairly safe way to travel.

"We have a standard which must be met," Ms. Neblett said. "We hope people exceed it. We don't like to have a minimum."

But traveling in a safe vehicle can't protect people from drunken drivers. Ever since the Carrollton crash, the NTSB has pressured Kentucky to tighten the state's drunken driving laws. The Kentucky Senate refused to vote this spring on a bill to lower the drunken-driving threshold to a blood-alcohol level of 0.08 percent from 0.10 percent Figures from 1996 show that Kentucky had 0.76 alcohol-related crash deaths per 10,000 people. Ohio had 0.41 incidents per 10,000; Indiana had 0.57 per 10,000.

"There's quite a difference," Mr. Sweedler said. "We've worked with Kentucky to try to help them improve their laws. But we have seen year after year where the legislature just does not want to move into the 20th century. They just don't want to take some of the steps that other states are taking."

The Associated Press contributed .

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