Queens accident prompts school bus safety forum

By Adam Kramer

The state Senate Majority Task Force on school bus safety held its only public hearing in the five boroughs at Martin Van Buren High School last week to determine the best way to protect school-age children.

The task force, formed by Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno (R-Rensselaer) on Jan. 24, met at the Queens Village high school to hear from education officials, government leaders and parents on the use of seat belts in school buses and school bus driver training.

State Sen. Frank Padavan (R-Bellerose), a member of the task force, said the death of 10-year-old Dante Alvaranga, who was hit by a school bus last year crossing Broadway in Elmhurst, has forced the state and city to re-examine school bus safety.

“The death of the child was an accident. But the tragic event only steps from the entrance to Elmhurst Hospital caused us to refocus on the issue of school bus safety, school bus drivers, and the need to examine all the ways to protect children on the way to school,” Padavan told the 10 people who attended the hearing Feb. 23.

According to statistics, there are about 2 million students statewide who use school buses to get to and from school. In New York City, 165,000 students ride school buses, while the remainder of the 1.1 million students use public transportation.

Kevin Gill, executive director of Food Services and Transportation for the city Board of Education, said 110 Livingston St. uses more buses than the MTA, is bigger than the Chicago and Los Angeles school systems combined and its buses make more than 102,000 stops per day.

He said the Board of Ed adheres to all national laws governing school bus safety. In addition, all drivers are tested for drugs, must undergo a state, city and federal crime check, and are constantly monitored.

According to Padavan, school buses are considered one of the safest forms of public transportation, but between 1995 and 1997 there were 1,546 school bus accidents that caused 1,797 injuries statewide.

Padavan said there is concern that children are not using seat belts when they are in the bus and are walking around in the aisles, which can put their lives in danger.

Gill said all buses that carry special education and learning-disabled children have seat belts and an attendant on the bus to make sure the children are buckled in.

He said only 80 percent of the regular school buses have seat belts, but there is a lack of adult supervision on school buses to make sure the children buckle up.

“The school bus driver is only responsible to drive the bus,” he said. “Mandating seat belt use is very difficult to monitor.”

There should be an attendant on every bus to make sure all the children wear their seat belts, said Claudette Brown, a bus driver for Atlantic Express bus company.

“If you see kids standing on the school bus, it is because they do not want to sit down,” said Luis Franco, a bus driver for Atlantic Express bus company. “You would never finish the run if you had to try and discipline everyone.”

Padavan said recent studies have shown that 70 percent of the nation's school districts cannot fill their driver vacancies and statewide there is a driver shortage of about 20 percent.

He questioned the drivers' licenses and training, saying that many private bus companies offer commercial driver training for free, and once the driver receives his license, he transfers to better paying trucking jobs.

Padavan asked if a separate bus license would alleviate the problem. Gill said he did not know whether a change in licensing of school bus drivers would stop the flight of drivers to truckers jobs.

New York City has enough drivers to service the 1,000 or so school bus trips per day, Gil said.

State Democrats have also released a report on their findings on school bus safety and said the report was designed to identify school bus safety concerns. Both Democrats and Republicans have said a change in the laws is necessary for children's safety.

“We can make our children's commute to school safer,” said state Sen. Suzi Oppenheimer (D-Westchester) in a statement. “We have identified the problems and now should enact meaningful reform that promotes increased safety. We do not need to wait for another tragedy to tell us where the weakness exists.”

More from Around New York