You see them almost every day: school buses filled with band players or a church group rumbling down an interstate. Can they operate safely at high speeds? Should they be there at all?
These questions and others are likely to get increasing scrutiny in the next few weeks as investigators pick through the wreckage of one of the worst bus crashes in United States history.
Late Saturday, a school bus returning from a church outing ran into a pickup truck traveling the wrong direction on Interstate 71 outside Carrollton, Ky. The bus burst into flames. Of the 67 children and adults on board, 27 were killed.
If a full-scale investigation is conducted, it will take months to piece together all the facts, says Alan Pollock, spokesman for the National Transportation Safety Board.
But already questions are being raised in some quarters about the safety of such privately owned buses and whether, in fact, any school buses should be operating on interstate highways.
``A school bus used this way is just a frame on four wheels,'' says Norman Sherlock, president of the American Bus Association, a trade group in Washington, D.C. ``The equipment just isn't made for that.''
The typical intercity motor coach weighs twice as much as a full-size school bus, uses diesel fuel instead of the more flammable gasoline, and is designed to travel at highway speeds, unlike a school bus that usually operates at much lower speeds, Mr. Sherlock adds.
Since 1977, federal regulations governing the construction of school buses have been tightened, according to a spokesman at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. But it was not clear at press time whether the bus that crashed in Kentucky was built before or after the tighter regulations were put into place.
The bus was built by the Superior Lima Division of the Sheller-Globe Corporation in Toledo, Ohio. The corporation closed its school-bus division in March 1981. Ford Motor Company, which made the chassis for the bus in question, did not return phone calls.
Beyond questions surrounding school bus construction is the whole question of whether school buses used for non-school activities should come under tighter regulation. In the Kentucky case, the bus was owned by the First Assembly of God in Radcliff, Ky., and was returning from an outing at Kings Island amusement park northeast of Cincinnati.
Officials at the US Department of Transportation have been quoted as saying that they lack the authority to regulate school buses used for nonschool activities. But the American Bus Association claims that the department has the authority but is unwilling to use it.
Sherlock of the bus association says that legislation has been introduced that would force the department to enforce certain regulations on private buses.