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El Paso County Colorado District 49

School bus safety

Falcon High School junior, Cara Carlson, said she would rather walk home than ride the school bus.”It’s a lot more crowded than it should be,” she said. “It’s three to a seat and kids are hanging off into the aisles. It’s a lot more pleasant just to walk home.”Parents are also concerned. Sandy Smith, parent of a Falcon student, attended the Aug. 14 Falcon School District 49 board meeting and voiced her concern about the overcrowding during the open forum session. The 70 students on her child’s bus, the additional sports equipment and musical instruments high school students take to school made the bus too crowded, she said.Cindy Hardin, D 49 transportation supervisor, said she is relieved the first month of school is over, and route adjustments effective Sept. 5 should fix the last of the overcrowding issue.”At the beginning of the year, we can tell who is eligible to ride the bus but have no idea how many will actually show up,” Hardin said. “You might have a route in Woodmen Hills with 120 eligible riders and only 30 kids on the bus, or all 120 may show.”When a bus fills to capacity, Hardin said the driver would call for a sweeper – a small bus or van – to transport the remaining students to school.”The drivers take daily rider counts and then we start splitting routes,” she said. All busses should now be 50 to 55 riders, Hardin said. Bus capacity is 72 students.Hardin said many routes were adjusted this year, not just for crowding but also to cut costs. “We had to increase efficiency due to fuel prices.”Some schools, such as Sand Creek High School, received more buses, but others were cut. Last year, 23 busses serviced Falcon Middle School but some transported as few as 20 or 30 students, Hardin said. The transportation department combined routes and eliminated eight busses. After receiving high rider counts, Hardin said two busses were added to FMS, but six routes were cut.Hardin, who joined D 49 six years ago, said she is working hard to ensure the safety of all D 49 bus riders. In 2003, she established an accident review committee to provide peer review and accountability for incidents and accidents involving a district vehicle. The committee’s recommendations help her determine ways to increase safety and avoid future problems by suggesting route changes, better equipment or more driver training.She said she also encourages drivers to participate in school bus road-e-os. Drivers begin preparation in March for the competitions that test their driving ability, emergency preparedness and knowledge of rules and regulations. This year, D 49 drivers won first place in the special needs division at the state road-e-o, and at the JEFFCO Invitational Road-e-o they won the overall first place team trophy.Hardin said the accident review committee and the road-e-os are important factors in the districts high safety record. “We lowered our own accident rate by 50 percent within the first two years,” she said. “Since then, the accident rate has stayed the same or been less.”Although seat belt laws for busses are frequently brought before the state Legislature, Hardin said it is unlikely Colorado will pass such a law.”The CDE (Colorado Department of Education) doesn’t recommend it,” Hardin said. “It boils down to the question -how do schools integrate them?” She said it would cost $300,000 to $500,000 to put belts on the district’s 80 busses or 10 to 12 years to retire busses and replace them with those equipped with seat belts.Hardin said seat belts on busses raise many other issues – ensuring all students are buckled and stay buckled for the duration of the ride, preventing students from hitting each other with the straps and the complication of evacuation in the case of a fire. “We have enough issues with just getting the students to sit down,” she said.Even without seat belts, Hardin said buses are safe. She described the current safety features of the school bus as similar to an egg in a foam carton. The compartmentalization created by the seats protects students in the event of an accident. “In a crash, the student bounces forward and back into their seat. I’ve seen documentation of rollover crashes where the students walk away with bumps and bruises,” Hardin said.To provide community members input on transportation decisions, Hardin said she formed the Transportation Advisory Committee. Consisting of parents and administrators, the committee drafts transportation policy and hears petitions from parents seeking bus service. Last year, they considered a fee for service program but did not implement it. The committee meets monthly, and Hardin said there are openings on the committee for parents who want to get involved.”We have a huge impact on students,” Hardin said. “We don’t always fall on the budget line where we think we should, but we have a big impact on whether or not the child gets to school.”

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