|Children Are Dying:
Are School Buses Safe?
By FEDERICA K. CLEMENTI & LIZ GOFF
The skies were stormy, overcast on Monday
morning, Dec. 6 when 10-year old Dante Alvaranga left his home on 80th Street in Elmhurst,
headed for classes at nearby P.S. 7.
Every day in Queens thousands of elementary
school students think nothing of getting on and off yellow school buses (above). But two
young Queens children died this year, and the flower memorials for 10-year-old Dante
Alvarango (shown) are still fresh at the Elmhurst intersection where he was struck down.
The fourth-grader was
accompanied by his mother, Alicia Coleman. Coleman, 37, was the kind of mother who
believed in walking her son to school. Dante rarely complained, and never walked alone,
Rain pounded the pavement, forming tiny
bubbles along Baxter Avenue as the pair made their way to the intersection of Baxter and
Broadway, where Dante would meet his fate moments later.
A bus owned by Mountain side
Transportation veered through the busy intersection at about 8:15 a.m., police said. The
driver, Raymond Segretti, 56, turned left at Baxter and Broadway, reportedly striking
Dante and his mother. Dante suffered "very severe" injuries to his leg and hip;
Coleman was not seriously injured.
The accident brought doctors and emergency
personnel running from Elmhurst Hospital Center. Dr. Maria Milano was the first to reach
Dante, and the first to recognize the gravity of his injuries.
"I tried to calm down the
mother," Milano said. "Her first instinct was to grab the boy and run for help,
but I could see that the injury to his hip was critical and he could not be moved."
Milano comforted the boy, who pleaded,
"Doctor, please help me." Dante died a short while later at Elmhurst, despite
efforts by doctors to save his life.
A spokesperson for Mountainside said
Segretti, "Did nothing wrong. He has not been suspended. "We are very sorry it
Segretti, who has a clean driving record,
was issued a summons for failing to signal when making the turn. The bus, one of dozens
utilized by the New York City Board of Education, was transporting 15 children to a
Special Education school in Elmhurst. There were no injuries to anyone on the bus, police
Coleman was treated for her injuries at
Elmhurst and released.
The deadly accident this week brought
back memories of when a school bus pulled up to the sprawling apartment complex at 104-40
Queens Blvd. at about 1:25 p.m. on March 24, 1999.
The driver spotted Juhi Shahs mother
waiting for the five-year-old to return home from school. The woman was standing on the
left side of the bus when it arrived. The driver told her to walk to the passenger door
where he would let Juhi exit from the bus. The mother hesitated, then began to walk behind
the bus to meet the girl.
The driver opened the door and the little
girl stepped out of the bus, onto a circular drive leading to the complex, where he
believed her mother was waiting.
The man closed the door and reportedly
started driving along the circle headed to the street. In a heartbeat, the driver heard a
piercing scream the girls mother had just witnessed the bus strike Juhi. Not
seeing her mother, Juhi crossed in front of the bus to the left side of the drive. The
tiny girl was invisible to the driver as he pulled away.
Juhi was swept underneath the bus. She died
About 36,000 general
education children and 14,000 special education children are entrusted daily in the hands
of school bus drivers in Queens.
"We are here for the children of New
York; their safety is all that matters," Joe Wolf, a certified Department of Motor
Vehicles Instructor, said.
Wolf drove school buses in Queens for 33
years, until he retired just after a year ago and started to work for Safety First
until recently the only National Safety Council approved driver training school of Queens.
However he cautioned, "People who make
buses dont drive buses."
He and other colleagues have complained
about structural problems related to the shape of school buses, such as the numerous
mirrors on either side of the bus which are supposed to facilitate rear vision.
"Those seven mirrors, so wide, all
around the front, create blind spots," Wolf explained, "you just cannot see what
falls into the trajectory of your rear mirrors, especially when turning left or
SAFETY MEASURES BUT NOT
Some bus companies have
recently put on the roads yellow buses equipped with a crossing gate a mechanical
arm-like stick that automatically extends for a few feet perpendicular to the vehicle each
time the driver opens the doors and lets the children off.
With the specially fitted buses, when the
children cross in front of the bus, the driver has them in visual focus because of the
safety distance created by the automatic gate.
"This is a private initiative on the
part of bus companies," Wilma Stubbs, transportation supervisor for the Washington
School District in neighboring Nassau County, said referring to the structural precaution
on the buses there.
"Sincerely, I wouldnt push
towards making the crossing gate mandatory for buses," Stubbs explained. "We
already teach children how to cross safely. We teach them what we call the I see
you, You see me rule, about the necessity of making eye contact with the driver
before crossing in front of the school bus," Stubbs said.
BUS SAFETY IN STATE OF STATUS QUO
"Its a pity,
its a tragedy," Sheldon Leffler, Chairman of the City Councils Committee
on Public Safety, commented following Mondays accident.
But authorities "have progressed
considerably in the way of traffic safety. Much fewer accidents occurred in recent years;
what happened yesterday only shows that we have to do more, learn from what happened and
improve," Leffler said.
Since 1965, as far as Wolf remembers,
"No major changes" have been undertaken to drastically improve school bus
efficiency in Queens.
"After what happened to that poor
girl," Wolf said referring to Shah of Forest Hills, "I thought they [state
authorities] would do something.
In order to teach traffic safety rules to
young children, the borough presidents office has sponsored a special program over
the past three years run by the Jamaica Center for Arts and Learning.
Puppeteers visited the boroughs
schools and used their stages to instruct children on how to cross the streets, stand on
sidewalks, the importance of wearing helmets when riding their bicycles and fastening
belts when in their parents car.
In 1998 the safety puppet show performed in
front of over 50,000 private and public school kids from kindergarten age to 3rd grade.
Now, a program with similar goals is run
through the New York Traffic Coalition and Borough Hall cooperation.
Furthermore, the Academy of Medicine has
published a specific guide book on safety that is distributed to teachers who are invited
to incorporate it into their regular class hours.
A program called "Young
Audiences" featuring songs on safety has been launched throughout schools in New York
"to inform children on how to get on the buses, what to do once theyre on, how
to safely behave at school and on the streets," Board of Education spokesperson
Margie Fineberg explained.
There is also a developmental program
sponsored by the Board of Education is called "Safety Makes Sense."
SEAT BELT USE NOT REQUIRED
All buses built after July
1987 are required to have seat belts, although there does not exist any determined rule on
how often, if at all, those seat belts should be checked and eventually changed with new
ones, Wolf explained.
"Seat belts get torn out and loosen up
after about three years,"according to Wolfs experience.
Although the law specifically requires seat
belts on school buses, and car-seats for children under the age of 5, it does not demand
that general education children fasten their seat belts while on board.
The National Transportation Safety Board
experts concluded from their studies that not enough evidence supports the use of seat
belts on school buses.
For the Safety Board the school bus remains
the safest form of transportation there is in the U.S.
"I cant say that it is going to
protect children more," Stubbs said of enforcing the use of two points lap belts on
Based on the documentary films she has seen
on the subject, "children can have more internal injuries with such belts than
without, " Stubbs said.
Stubbs agrees with the general official
opinion that buses and traffic conditions are safe, and in New York City they are
"New York State has one of the safest
records in the country. Our buses are state of the art to the standards of other states in
America," she said.
When speaking on the death of Dante
Alvaranga, Stubbs concluded that "it just happened to be a school bus" to have
caused the boys death.
In fact, the district inspector added, it
is the "school districts responsibility only when the child is on the bus.
Parents do not like to accept that; but they are responsible too."
SAFETY TRAINING AND
The State Education
Department and Board of Education require that public school bus drivers are certified and
undergo a series of training courses and yearly adjournment workshops
At Safety First, drivers mandatory
training courses consist of a two-hour fall refresher to be taken by all drivers each year
before the school year begins in September.
A safe team work class is held for both
drivers and escorts, focusing on transportation services for children with disabilities,
followed by a two-hour spring refresher updating and focusing on special-need children
held in April and May.
For public school bus drivers, there is a
mandatory yearly examination enforced by the Department of Motor Vehicles, and a recently
passed law demands also a physical performance test in which drivers coordination,
agility and reaction in case of emergency, are evaluated by trainers like Wolf.
"Its not easy. Drivers are well
trained, they know what to do and they do their very best," Wolf said.
Private school bus drivers fall under the
control of their employer-company.
"School bus drivers are monitored on a
month to month basis by the private owner of the bus company. We have little or nothing to
do with them except at the moment they come to renew their licenses. If their records show
negative points, depending on the nature of violations, we can deny renewal," Leffler
Private school bus drivers only
requirement is to take a 19-hour road test each year and pass the medical exam every other
Wolf told the Tribune that he has many times
reported to Board of Education officials having seen private yellow buses loaded past full
capacity on the streets of Queens, especially in the Jackson Heights area where private
bus enterprises reportedly thrive.