Parents worry about school bus safety, emissions

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Recent studies about the harmful conditions on school buses have some Malibu parents asking questions about the nine-bus fleet that serves Malibu’s public schools. Although school buses are statistically much safer than private vehicles, recent news items have parents wondering if their kids are as safe as they can be.

Particulate emissions in the form of diesel exhaust have been measured at high levels inside school buses. The diesel soot causes cancer, emphysema and other respiratory illness.

And a new law requiring shoulder and lap seatbelts in newly purchased buses has some parents wondering if the current lap belts and padded seats are acceptable.

Shelley Kramer worries about her son, a daily school bus passenger. “This whole thing is a big Catch 22 issue, and they don’t call it a major priority,” she said. “I don’t feel he’s safe and I do worry about it.”

But as with all matters of public policy, the shortage of funding is only part of the story. The Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District has purchased three newer buses that run on clean running compressed natural gas. Transportation administrator Neal Abrahamson said in a telephone interview he would like to use the clean buses more often.

“My problem is there’s no fuel out here,” he said. “Where am I going to get fuel for these buses?”

Most days, just one clean burning bus is on Pacific Coast Highway, with five older diesel buses handling the brunt of the 509 school children with bus passes. Abrahamson said he frequently gets parents who call him on the phone after reading about the hazardous fumes from old diesel buses and who insist their children ride in the new CNG vehicles.

Compressed natural gas fueling stations are expensive at $450,000 each, he said. The nearest CNG pump to the Malibu bus barn is 22 miles down Pacific Coast Highway in Santa Monica, “but that one is out of service a third of the time,” Abrahamson said. “That means we have to drive down to Century Boulevard at LAX to get fueled.”

A closure on Highway 1 means a CNG bus will run out of gas on the round trip from LAX to Malibu via canyon roads and the 101 Freeway, the detour that several buses had to take this year, he said.

As for the new law that goes into effect this year mandating passenger shoulder seat belts for new school buses, parents are asking why older lap belt-equipped buses are still being used on Malibu runs.

The largest diesel bus holds 90 children sitting three abreast and wearing lap belts, which Abrahamson said is safe and legal but highly unpopular with parents and children. Replacing the older buses with new ones would cut capacity to 72, with each student sitting two-abreast with shoulder belts.

“That means for every two buses that I replace, I need three news ones. Plus I need a place to park and a driver and a place to fuel it,” Abrahamson said.

That means the 509 Malibu students whose parents pay up to $472 per year for bus service-some get discounts based on income-will remain primarily in diesel buses for years to come. “The pollution inside these buses from diesel soot is dangerous,” parent Kramer said. “The only way to fix this is new buses or air purifiers in the front and back.”