LONG BEACH — Kristin Baker's room has long been a place of gatherings.
It is here, amid the cool, green plants next to the closet filled with textbooks and funny hats, that Zygomas, the Wilson High School girls' club, held its meetings; it was here that fellow Wilson yell leaders sometimes planned school projects.
This week the room held a gathering of another kind. Twenty of Kristin's friends spent an evening sprawled on its floor, stuffing envelopes with letters. Their goal: to convince state legislators to require seat belts on buses like the one in which Kristin died at the age of 17.
The youngster was killed Dec. 30 when a chartered Greyhound bus she was riding with 43 other students on a ski vacation to Sun Valley, Idaho, overturned on an icy Utah road. Twenty-two students were injured in the accident, some of them seriously.
"When the policeman came to the door that morning, somehow I just knew," recalled Terri Peterson, Kristin's mother. For the first hour she was hysterical. Then she got mad.
She's been mad ever since; and as a result, finds herself at the center of a burgeoning local movement for a law to put seat belts on school and charter buses.
"If Kristin had been wearing a seat belt," Peterson reasons, "she'd be here right now."
This week the bereaved mother, an elementary school teacher in the Long Beach Unified School District, traveled to Sacramento to testify before an Assembly committee considering a bill to require seat belts on newly purchased school buses in California.
Peterson considers the measure a step in the right direction, but it doesn't go far enough, she said in an interview this week in her Long Beach home. What she'd like to see, she said, is legislation requiring belts on both new and used school buses, as well as on any vehicle hired to transport students.
While present law requires the wearing of belts in most private automobiles, it does not apply to buses.
School and bus company officials have said such laws are unnecessary because newer buses are already equipped with special seats designed to protect passengers more effectively than would seat belts.
Because the seats are padded and high-backed, they say, they keep riders in place and tend to cushion the impact of a crash.
Peterson believes that isn't enough. "It's discriminatory," she said, "to demand that the rest of us buckle up and not allow children to (buckle up) if they so choose."
In the wake of the accident that killed her daughter, a host of area agencies and groups have joined her struggle. So far two cities--Long Beach and La Quinta in Riverside County--have adopted resolutions urging state legislators to require seat belts on buses that transport children. The Long Beach Public Safety Advisory Commission has urged the local school district to look into seat belts for its buses. A number of area organizations--including at least seven local PTAs, a state-affiliated women's group and the Greek Alumnae Advisory Council at Cal State Long Beach--have initiated letter-writing campaigns.
And last week a Lakewood attorney filed suit against Greyhound Lines, Inc. asking $60 million in damages on behalf of one of the Wilson students who, according to the suit, sustained serious injuries because the company "carelessly and negligently" transported her in a bus without seat belts.
"If we can establish a precedent in this case--if the court finds that (the company) is subject to punitive damages and they know they can be sued--it's an economic incentive for them to provide seat belts," said Ernest J. Franceschi, attorney for Karyn Rossebo, 17, who he said expects to spend at least two months in the hospital with a fractured pelvis and other injuries.
Pam Good, a spokeswoman for Greyhound at its headquarters in Phoenix, said it was against company policy to comment on matters under litigation.
And Richard Van der Laan, a spokesman for the Long Beach Unified School District, said that while the district's buses have no seat belts, they do comply with state and federal safety standards requiring buses built since 1977 to be equipped with the high-backed padded seats.
Seats Cushion Impact
According to Ron Kinney, supervisor of school transportation for the state Department of Education, these seats, which are padded front and back, prevent injury in two ways: the high backs keep passengers from being vaulted over the tops of the seats in front of them, and the padding on the backs of the seats cushions impact.
Kinney said studies done in Canada show that this type of seat is more effective in preventing injury than are seat belts. Rather than equip buses with belts--a solution he sees as both costly and ineffective--Kinney favors replacing the state's fleet of school buses, many of which were built before 1977, with new buses that would have the high-backed seats.
According to the California Highway Patrol, only eight of the state's 92,186 traffic fatalities since 1966 have involved children in school buses.