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Friday, October 23, 1992 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Gates On Buses Are Legacy Of Girl, 6, Who Was Struck, Killed

Every school bus in the state has something new on its front bumper this year - a device sometimes called a "Betsy gate," named after a child who was struck and killed by a school bus near Woodinville.

The devices prevent children from crossing directly in front of a bus, near the front bumper, where driver visibility is poor.

"It's amazing that it takes a death to get something started," says Allison Timmons, a neighbor of 6-year-old Betsy Anderson and a witness to the girl's death May 29, 1990. "I feel she would still be alive today if the bus had had one," adds Timmons.

Betsy was fatally injured after a short bus ride home from Hollywood Hills Elementary School south of Woodinville. When the bus stopped at the end of the cul-de-sac where Betsy lived, about 20 children got off, many of them heading into an apartment complex on the north side of Northeast 171st Street.

Betsy had to cross the street to get to her house on the south side. To do that, she walked in front of the bus. Because of the way the driver's seat is located and interference from the dashboard, it's impossible for a driver to see children directly in front of a bus, close to the bumper.

While buses have mirrors to provide a view of the front, not every mirror is checked every time the bus moves.

"I walked to the end of the street," recalls Timmons, as she did every day to meet the kids.

"I did see her feet, I could see her turn," toward the front of the bus, she says. "Betsy and I made eye contact and we smiled and before I could even scream . . .," the bus pulled forward.

"She was skipping," says Timmons. "It all just happened."

Betsy was hit by the front wheel on the driver's side of the bus and was dead when medical units arrived.

Her death led to community outrage. In a coincidence, a state task force was studying school-bus safety, and it earlier had scheduled a meeting in Woodinville two nights after Betsy died.

The task force even had been studying the safety gates, but her death provided a powerful impetus for their installation.

Ultimately, Timmons and other parents collected more than 4,000 signatures on petitions advocating the gates.

A TRAGIC BUT FAMILIAR STORY

As tragic as it was, Betsy's death was part of a familiar pattern to Tom Turner, president of Specialty Manufacturing Inc., the North Carolina company that holds the patent on the crossing arms.

"It's the kind of product that doesn't get much attention until there's a tragedy," says Turner.

Recognition of the need for a front crossing arm first began to emerge in 1976, he said. The company had been considering building such an arm, but that year, a death in Connecticut led that state to write to Specialty to see if the company could make such a product.

"Then in 1978, eight kids were killed in North Carolina," recalls Turner, and in 1979, that state began requiring the crossing arms on all buses. Several other southeast states, including South Carolina, Georgia and Virginia, followed within a few years.

What Turner's company eventually designed was an arm that is usually powered by a pneumatic rubber diaphragm linked to the bus air-brake system. The arm is extended automatically when the red stop sign on a bus is activated.

The gate is made of a slender aluminum rod twisted in a figure-8 with a tiny clip in the middle. That provided enough of a barrier to make kids walk around it, yet was flexible enough so they couldn't be hurt bumping against it.

State Sen. Patty Murray and State Rep. Grace Cole, both Shoreline Democrats, had chaired the state task force on student transportation safety and they later sponsored a bill that led to the state law requiring the crossing arms, which came to be known as "Betsy gates" in the Legislature.

Eventually, $700,000 was appropriated for the gates, and Specialty sold some 6,600 of the gates to the state - enough for virtually every school bus in Washington.

The gates were delivered over the past year and installed by school districts as rapidly as possible, with all buses required to have them in place by September this year.

`A VERY SPECIAL CHILD'

Betsy's full name was Elizabeth Kyung Anderson. Her parents have moved from the house where she lived and her mother, Marceline Bovetz, says the family has never felt comfortable discussing the death, saying it is a "very personal, emotional issue."

No lawsuit was filed over the death. Bovetz says the family did not want to be in the public eye. She remembers her daughter as "often special, gifted, extremely intelligent. She was a very special child," she says.

The mother does find some solace in the new gates, saying, "That's the good thing that came out of it, that no more children in this state will die" this way.

Copyright (c) 1992 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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