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NHTSA: Be on the Lookout for Children Locked in Vehicles

With summer temperatures still high across most of the nation, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is focusing on the dangers of heat stroke for children left in vehicles, a warning school bus operators should heed especially as the new school year begins.

This month, NHTSA Administrator David Strickland visited Texas and then Georgia, two states that have faced especially high temperatures of late. The concern for student transporters is students, especially younger ones, who fall asleep during the bus ride and go unnoticed by drivers at the conclusion of the route. Children left unattended on school buses continues to be a challenge for the industry, as a Web search uncovers dozens of examples over the past several months from across the country.

San Francisco State University’s Department of Geosciences found that 49 children under the age of 14 years died in 2010 due to hyperthermia, with 21 national deaths so far in 2011. Several states have witnessed especially high incidences of fatalities for children ages 3 and under — including in Texas, Georgia, Florida, California, Nevada, and North Carolina.

NHTSA added that public meetings on this safety topic are also scheduled for California, Florida, Nevada and North Carolina. These sessions all follow a first-ever NHTSA round table on children left alone in vehicles that was held last month.

The Texas School Bus Specifications published by the state Department of Public Safety require all school buses be equipped with child reminder systems that include an audible alarm and visual warning device, which the driver deactivates after walking to the rear exit. During this time, the driver is supposed to check for children who might be napping and failed to unload at his or her stop.

Meanwhile, a provision in Section C “Post Trip Inspection” of the Georgia School Bus Driver Manual requires that drivers walk the bus to check for sleeping children. Drivers must “check carefully under and on all seats.” Failure to do so could result in felony child endangerment charges.

Derek Graham, the transportation section at the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction, said the state’s school bus specifications have required child check systems with alarms to be equipped on all newly-purchased vehicles for a number of years. But, he added, school systems are not required to retrofit, and there is no state regulation requiring drivers to walk the bus. He pointed out, however, that the systems are required to be engaged and, once the alarm sounds at the end of routes, drivers are essentially forced to walk the bus and are reminded to scan for children to disengage.

The Nevada Bus Driver Training Manual requires drivers to check for students at the end of routes, and it notes one out of every 100 school bus drivers will leave a child on board the bus alone. In addition, drivers who leave students on board can face child neglect charges and/or termination.

Meanwhile, Chapter 6A-3.0171(z) of the Florida Administrative Code requires school bus drivers “to perform a complete interior inspection of each bus after each run and trip to ensure no students are left on board.” Additionally, Charlie Hood, the state director of transportation at the Florida Department of Education, said “post-trip passenger check systems” have been specified for all new school buses for the past several years.

Calls to representatives in California as to specific requirements of bus drivers to check for students were not returned at this writing.

Whether left alone in a car or a school bus, hot weather and locked confines put children at risk of a serious injury or death from hypethermia, which according to NHTSA research is the leading cause of non-crash vehicle deaths for children under the age of 14.

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