Controversy and questions regarding the installation of barriers in school buses to create social distance between drivers and students continues, as the Student Transportation Aligned for Return to School (STARTS) Task Force discussed the new equipment in a recent webinar.
The task force on Tuesday detailed a National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHSTA) response to the Illinois Department of Transportation earlier this month that permitted the installation of specific plexiglass and soft shield barriers in school buses under certain conditions. NHTSA pointed out its guidance does not carry the weight of the law.
Mike Collingwood, the vehicle inspection unit manager at the Illinois Department of Transportation, said during the webinar that his letter to NHTSA was prompted by several requests for guidance from local districts about the compliance of the barriers with Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (FMVSS).
After receiving NHTSA’s response that was based on photos of specific products that Collingwood shared with the agency, he noted that Illinois decided to authorize barriers directly behind the driver seat but not to the right because of visibility concerns. He added that it remains up to individual districts whether they want to install rear barriers.
Joe Labonte, chair of the School Bus Manufacturers Technical Council, shared that while the NHTSA letter was very thorough, the main takeaways for student transporters should be driver visibility. He recommended that the barrier should not obstruct student loading and unloading, and the equipment should adhere to the glazing requirements as outlined by NHTSA.
One concern, as expressed by a webinar attendee, is that some of the barriers include a door to the right of the driver that swings open. This could potentially create an obstruction during an emergency evacuation. Labonte, who is also the product safety and compliance officer at IC Bus, confirmed that while the bus driver would be able to exit the barrier in an emergency, there is a concern that the door could potentially obstruct the aisle for student passengers.
He also explained that, per NHTSA, barriers must comply with head impact zone requirements, and there are different methods for ensuring school districts remain in compliance when installing that barrier behind the driver. These include removing the first row of seats or otherwise prohibiting students from sitting there. He advised districts to work with manufacturers on any vehicle modifications.
He noted that IC Bus offers a retrofit kit for the first row of seats.
Barrier Manufacturers Weigh In
Scott Geyer, vice president of School Bus Safety Solutions, emailed School Transportation News on Aug. 17, following the release of the NHTSA letter. Geyer said his company’s Transit Curtain meets FMVSS 222 on occupant crash protection, as the product’s soft plastic attaches to the bus ceiling panels using fire-resistant polystyrene. He said the wide bracket attaches to the ceiling with five sheet metal screws, similar to what is used to attach the ceiling panels themselves.
He said the bottom of the panel is attached to the underside of the seat at the metal support post and bar. “There are no hard parts exposed along the back of the seat and the curtain is more flexible than the seat cushion itself,” he explained. “The curtain itself has smooth metal grommets that are held to the ceiling bracket and under the seat by clear zip-ties. The ties can be cut with a plyer or snip tool.”
Labonte added during the webinar that flammability also remains a concern. He also expressed that certain flexible curtains could be a distraction, as they might move during transit and distract the driver. He said student transporters have shared concerns that soft shields installed between passenger seats can potentially become tangled. During a crash, they have also expressed concern about the shield suffocating students.
However, Mike David, the regional sales manager for Rohrer School and Commercial Bus Sales, shared with School Transportation News that the Original Soft Shield partitions do not conform to a student’s mouth in that way. He explained the passenger shields, while a flexible material, include a fiberglass rod that runs from the top of the product to the bottom, which makes suffocation nearly impossible.
He also explained that while it is possible for the ceiling mounts to come loose, he said they’re extremely strong. He added that he hung from a rod and the mounts didn’t break. He added that the shields also comply with FMVSS 302 flammability requirements.
Geyer said the Transit Curtains far exceed the burn rate established by FMVSS 302, as it self-extinguishes in less than two seconds. He added the clear material used to weld curtain applications doesn’t ignite.
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Related: Wisconsin OK’s School Bus Barriers to Separate Students from Drivers
Related: Texas Advises School Districts That Barriers Are Prohibited on School Buses
In addition to FMVSS 222 and 302, Geyer said the Transit Curtains meet FMVSS 111, 217 and 205. In terms of rear visibility, he said the curtains neither block the mirrors down the center aisle nor any visibility of side mirrors. He also said the company does not recommend the product be installed on rows where the curtain may overlap the emergency door or windows.
Another question commonly asked by webinar attendees as well as STN Facebook visitors was if the installation of barriers blocks airflow and ventilation. They also voiced concern that drivers could become entrapped.
David confirmed that the product engineers realized that airflow helps to mitigate the exposure of the virus and developed the product to meet that requirement. He said the passenger shields and driver barriers do not ascend all the way to the ceiling or the floor and are not sealed off. While he admitted a small amount of airflow could be impeded, air will still travel underneath, behind (for the passenger shields), or around the panels.