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Local students cram into buses 

Blanket seating standards potentially put bigger kids in harm’s way

How do you get three high-school students—each measuring more than 13 inches across the back side—to fit on a 39-inch school bus seat? If you’re a financially strapped school district in California, the answer is: You just do, even if it means the student on the end sits with one cheek off the seat.

The Code of Federal Regulations provides a formula for determining the number of students that can safely sit on any given-sized school bus seat. The number is not federal law, but it is a guideline for school-bus manufacturers to use in determining maximum seating capacity for each bus. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration web site (NHTSA), this formula is based on “sitting three small elementary school age persons per typical 39 inch school bus seat.�

California law, however, allows for three students per 39-inch bus seat regardless of age or size, allowing individual districts to limit seating for larger and older children.

An end-of-the-school-year look into one of the overcrowded buses at Arroyo Grande High School in the Lucia Mar Unified School District (LMUSD) revealed that three high school students don’t fit on a 39-inch seat. Aboard the Route 12 bus, students on the end seats were perched precariously on the edge, with half their torsos off the seat, putting them shoulder to shoulder with the passengers across the aisle. Each time another student boarded, the end passengers had to stand in order to let that student pass.

“This is why we need more bus money instead of book money,� student Shannon Poling wearily remarked as she repeatedly popped up to let students by.

With the school year coming to an end, students have all summer to stretch their legs. However, they’ll be returning to the same standards next year unless the district purchases more buses and revises its policy of allowing three high-school students per seat. Mary Melton, director of transportation for LMUSD, said that the district is looking into acquiring grants to purchase three new buses.

The Route 12 bus, which has two rows of 15 seats, is certified by the CHP to carry 90 passengers. That certification means the bus conforms to safety specifications set forth in the California Code of Regulations.

Cullen Sisskind, motor carrier specialist two for the CHP, said that when the buses are inspected for certification, the inspector is ascertaining how many seating positions at maximum are allowed on the bus.

“We’re not assigning 13 inches to an individual in order to determine the number of positions available on a bus,� he said.

Since a particular bus may transport elementary-school students one day and football students the next, Cullen explained that the inspectors aren’t going to know how many students are going to fit on a seat on any given day.

Based on what the Route 12 bus looked like with 65 high-school students aboard, 90 students would present wall-to-wall bodies with no aisle in sight. While the driver has a 19-inch seat, the high-school students—many of whom are of adult size—are being asked by the district to squeeze into approximately two-thirds the amount of space afforded the driver. A seat holding two average-sized boys allows approximately 8 inches for any hapless third student forced to join them.

“Kindergartners fit wonderfully, but high schoolers don’t fit well,� Melton conceded. “School buses are not built for comfort.�

But they are built for safety—provided, of course, that the students fit within the confines of the seat. School buses are required to have padded seatbacks, with each seatback acting as a restraining barrier for the occupant in the seat behind it.

“Those unlucky ones who are hanging off the edge don’t have that benefit,� said Kurt Weiss, forensic engineer and collision reconstruction specialist for Automotive Safety Research in Santa Barbara. “They are unrestrained occupants.�

Weiss said that the key to minimizing injury in a collision is to decelerate at the same rate as the vehicle. Unrestrained passengers continue to move at the same speed as they did before the crash.

“In a frontal crash, he’s just going to be a projectile,� Weiss said of any student sitting partially off the seat. “He’s going to stay in motion until some outside force gets him to stop.�

Dr. Carley Ward, president of Biodynamics Engineering in Los Angeles, concurred that students not seated within the 39 inches are at an increased risk for injury.
“A frontal impact will put one of them headfirst going toward the front of the bus,� she said. “It’s like diving into shallow water. If you’re going headfirst, you can get significant injuries.�

Ward mentioned paralysis and a broken neck as possibilities.

And it may not take an accident to cause injury. Chuck Plemons, a motor vehicle safety consultant from Shell Beach, said that another concern for improperly seated students is the chance of being bounced out of the seat while the bus is going over a railroad track or rough stretch of road.

“If you sit that close together, on rough road two might get bounced out of their seats,� he said. “Then they’re going to be colliding.�

John Greene, supervisor for the California Office of School Transportation, said that even if students are hanging off the seat, no law is being violated by the school district as long as there are no more than three students to a seat.

An officer for the CHP Coastal Division in San Luis Obispo County, who wished to remain anonymous, said that the reason it’s not a violation is that there’s no law in California that specifically says a student has to be contained within a seat.

“We can’t enforce what is not law,� the officer said.

Deborah Flores, the superintendent for LMUSD, tapped Gary Mortimer—a school business consultant assisting the district until a new deputy superintendent of business is hired to replace the deputy who retired in December—to respond to queries about bus seating. Mortimer, who’s worked with California schools for 25 years, said that most districts within California “load at three� across the board. He said that the director of transportation for each district decides how many students per seat are allowed.

“Mary Melton inspects the buses and observes the interior,� he said. “Mary would tell the deputy superintendent of business if more buses were needed.�

For her part, Melton said that she’s inspected the high-school buses and never had a problem getting down the aisle. She said that she’s aware that not all high-school students fit three to a seat, but noted that the bus driver is responsible for making sure “the bus is safely loaded� prior to departure. If the students don’t fit, the driver can call the Office of Transportation for assistance, she said.

Meanwhile, AGHS students rushed to the buses as the school year wound down. The first aboard the Route 12 bus on a recent afternoon was Nate Terrell, who said it’s “miserable� to be the student on the end seat.

“You’re mostly off the seat,� he said. “That’s why I always get here first.�

As the last students to arrive perched on what remained of the end seats, the bus driver, who asked not to be named, shook his head in sympathy.

“They all should fit,� he said. “In reality, no, they don’t.� ∆

Shawna Galassi is a freelancer. Send her comments or ideas through the editor at

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