The National Transportation Safety Board, investigating a school bus accident that injured 51 people, recommended Nov. 14 that emergency doors with protruding metal latches be redesigned and bus seat cushions have fail-safe latches.

But the panel said the upstate New York accident failed to yield sought-after evidence on the effectiveness of seat belts.

Investigators believe most of the students on the bus were wearing seat belts when the bus collided with a dump truck on Oct. 21, 1999, in rural Schoharie County.

The second-graders were on a class trip when authorities say the bus driver failed to stop at a flashing red light and was struck on the passenger side toward the rear of the bus.

The students who were most seriously hurt were sitting near the impact point. NTSB engineer Kristin Bolte said investigators could not determine from the accident data whether the pupils would have suffered more harm if they were not wearing seat belts.

The federal government has required seat belts in passenger cars since 1968, but has never required them in any kind of bus. The thinking has been that with their size, height, padded seats, and high seat backs, buses offer passengers a protective cocoon if there is a crash.

New York state law mandates that buses manufactured after 1987 have seat belts, but whether passengers wear them is up to school districts.

The NTSB, which makes safety recommendations but lacks the power to implement them, last year concluded a three-year study on bus crash worthiness and decided not to recommend seat belts.

On average, nine people are killed each year in school buses. Roughly 42,000 are killed annually in car and truck accidents.

No one in the New York collision was injured on the bus emergency side door, but crash investigators said if the chaperone sitting in the emergency exit seat had been thrust against the door and its metal latches the impact could have been lethal. Instead, the chaperone was pushed against the seat in front of her.

The panel recommended either padding the levers on the emergency door or making them recessed to prevent injury.

The board also recommended that latches for seat bottoms be installed with fail-safe locking mechanisms so they stay in place during accidents. Two students in the New York crash were believed to have suffered more serious injuries because their seat became unlatched during the collision, investigators said.

“I was appalled when I first got there and saw how many of the latches had failed,” NTSB board member George Black said.

The bus safety recommendations were forwarded to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration for further review. n


National Transportation Safety Board, 490 L’Enfant Plaza SW, Washington, DC 20594; phone (202) 314-6000, web