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After recall and 7 deaths, school bus handrails still faulty

April 4, 1997

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Twelve-year-old Carey Chipps hopped off her school bus one April afternoon and was almost immediately yanked from her feet.

The drawstring of her jacket had caught in the handrail, and the departing bus dragged her 40 feet until the string snapped. Carey, thrown under the bus, was crushed by its rear wheels.

Today, six years after Carey died and four years after a safety recall, handrails on nearly 200,000 buses _ almost half of those recalled _ have still not been fixed, according to an Associated Press analysis of the most recent government statistics.

That includes thousands with handrails made improperly after the recalls began.

``That is higher than it should be, no question about it,″ said Bill Paul, editor and publisher of School Transportation News. ``That should be unacceptable.″

Fixing the problem, a narrow V-shaped space where the handrail meets the bus wall, costs less than $10 and takes less than 10 minutes.

Yet at least six more children have been killed and 15 injured in drawstring snaggings since Carey died in 1991.

``Carey was alive when I got to her,″ said her mother, Jane Chipps, who still lives in Beckley, W.Va. ``I said, `Oh, Carey, I love you so much,′ and she said, `I love you too, Mommy.‴

The most recent parents to grieve are in Georgetown, Ky., where 7-year-old Brittany Nichole Marcum became victim No. 7 as she stepped off a bus in December. Federal officials are investigating a January death in Dalton, Ga., to see whether an 8-year-old’s coat was caught on the handrail or the door.

Under recall rules, bus makers are required only to notify bus owners _ usually school districts, states or leasing firms _ and the owners are responsible for making repairs.

Nationally, about 385,000 school buses had the handrails with a gap that could snag a drawstring and needed to be modified with a safer design, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which orders and monitors manufacturers’ compliance with safety recalls.

But just 50.2 percent have been fixed, according to the agency’s reports from manufacturers through 1996. That leaves 191,858 buses where deadly handrails may still be in place.

A 100 percent compliance rate is unrealistic for a recall involving older buses, experts say, noting that some buses have been junked, shipped overseas or sold to unknown owners.

But such recalls usually have rates approaching 80 percent.

NHTSA believes many school districts are fixing their handrails without telling manufacturers. The agency is conducting audits to get a better count.

Still, they admit, finding and fixing the buses has been tough. Difficulties include resistance by bus makers and owners, identifying problem buses and devising successful modifications.

Bus makers resisted the recall from the start, asserting the problem was not handrails that had been safe for decades, but instead new kids’ fashions featuring dangling drawstrings.

``We kind of cajoled manufacturers to do something,″ said Jonathan White, chief of NHTSA’s recall analysis division.

The Consumer Product Safety Commission, in turn, has since persuaded clothing makers to make sure drawstrings at the waist don’t extend more than 3 inches.

Manufacturers insist they have worked hard to find problems and solutions. ``I know everybody in our industry wants them fixed because we’re very concerned about safety,″ said John Thomas III, president of Thomas Built Buses, one of the largest makers.

Charlie Gauthier, who worked on the case at NHTSA and now directs a group of school transportation directors, said regulators wouldn’t have had enough evidence to force a recall if bus makers hadn’t agreed to one voluntarily.

In two years, 1991 and 1992, kids got off buses 20 billion times: two were killed in drawstring accidents, Gauthier said. ``I don’t know of anybody that would say that’s an unreasonable risk.″

Ultimately, bus makers did agree to a voluntary recall, but they had little enthusiasm and completion rates were low, White said.

In fact, five manufacturers _ including the nation’s three largest _ ordered remedies that didn’t work. For instance, AmTran Corp. told bus owners to insert a spacer made of plastic foam between the handrail and the wall, but later found it collapsed over time.

In all, 50,884 buses that were ``fixed″ had to be fixed again.

In 1995, NHTSA called for a new round of recalls ordering a new, improved set of repairs. But in the meantime, companies had produced thousands of new buses, meaning they had to be fixed, too.

As more children died and publicity spread, federal officials added more bus models to the recall list, thanks to schools and parents who checked buses, found problems and reported to NHTSA.

And the agency added recalls to fix handrails on the left side exiting the bus. Initially, officials thought only handrails on the right caused problems.

In the end, a solution involves more than recalling handrails, said Sen. Mike DeWine, a Republican from southwestern Ohio, where Brandi Browder’s head was crushed after her jacket string snagged and she was thrown to the ground. DeWine has written to states asking they include handrails in annual bus inspections.

``If you rely on the recall process, you’re going to have huge numbers that are never going to get fixed,″ DeWine said. ``With the amount of paperwork a school district may get, that piece of paper may not make it to the right person.″

Forty-nine of 50 states told DeWine’s office they inspect buses for handrail defects. But not all pull buses off road if they fail. Making sure drivers are well-trained is also crucial, DeWine said.

Meanwhile, buses are still added to the recall list as new models are found with unsafe rails. Just this February, NHTSA said 26,000 more buses should be checked.

``It really doesn’t surprise me anymore,″ said Bill Brucken of Ashtabula, Ohio, whose 11-year-old daughter almost died in 1994 after her drawstring caught in a bus.

At the last moment, lying on the ground with tires coming toward her, Briana turned her head. The wheels went over her shoulder, not her skull, and she survived.

Says her father: ``It’s just not high on anyone’s priority list.″

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