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New Generation of Parents Spurs Drive For School-Bus Seat Belts

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According to estimates from the National Safety Council, 390,000 school buses transported 21.5 million students each day in 1983. Ten school-bus passengers were killed and about 3,300 students were injured in accidents involving school buses.

In growing numbers, parents, school-board members, and lawmakers, convinced that seat belts would significantly reduce the number of injuries, are demanding that school buses be outfitted with safety restraints--and that school systems ensure their proper use.

In the past two years, more than 20 school districts around the country have put seat belts in their new school buses, and some districts are even adding safety restraints to their older buses. At least five states are considering legislation to require that all new school buses be outfitted with seat belts. And two bills are contemplated in the Congress that would tie federal funds to seat-belt requirements.

'New Generation'

According to Arthur Yeager, a dentist and vice president of Physicians for Auto Safety, the movement to put seat belts in school buses has gained momentum because "a new generation of parents," now accustomed to using state-mandated child-safety seats in their family cars, does not want their children to ride on school buses without safety restraints.

Joseph Zanga, chairman of the committee on school health of the American Academy of Pediatrics, said he, too, has been hearing from many concerned parents. "[They] are coming to us and saying their kids are frightened to be riding without belts," Mr. Zanga said. "The first vehicle children ride on regularly without some sort of belt is a school bus."

This surge of public interest has led to the formation of the National Coalition for Seat Belts on School Buses. While it has yet to incorporate as a nonprofit organization so that it can solicit donations, the coalition already has 32 regional coordinators.

"Children cannot go to school unless they have the required immunizations," said Carol Fast of Ardsley, N.Y., founder and president of the coalition. "But the schools don't do anything to protect the kids against the number-one killer of people under 44--car accidents."

Two Basic Reasons

According to the coalition, there are two basic reasons to put seat belts in school buses: They reduce the number and the extent of injuries to passengers, and they reinforce the importance of buckling up.

But according to David H. Soule, a pupil-transportation specialist with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, no conclusive evidence supports the coalition's claim that seat belts would reduce injuries on school buses.

"There is substantial evidence that restraints are beneficial to motorists in cars," Mr. Soule said. "But we don't have that kind of evidence with regard to school buses. There aren't enough belts in buses to know."

Canadian Test

Transport Canada, the Canadian transportation agency, recently performed a crash test on a large 66-passenger school bus to determine whether belted passengers would fare better in a head-on collision than unbelted passengers. While a final report on the test has not been released, Robin V. Myers, chief of standards and regulation for Transport Canada's office of road safety, said the test indicated that belted passengers in a large school bus "could sustain more serious injuries than those who are not belted."

Mr. Myers said the test showed that in a head-on collision, high padded seat backs and strong seats would "protect unbelted passengers very well," and that belted passen-gers would be more likely to sustain neck injuries than unbelted ones. The injury levels of belted passengers, he added, would be "below those which we could consider life-threatening."

Transport Canada used six dummies in the test: three belted and three unbelted. The bus was crashed into a barrier at a speed of 30 miles an hour, Mr. Myers said.

Dr. Yeager of Physicians for Auto Safety, however, called the test "limited" and "unfair" since it tested the effectiveness of belts only in a head-on collision and not in a lateral collision or a rollover. "Such a test is unfair unless you do a range of testing," Dr. Yeager said. "In any other crash, the nonbelted dummies would fare the worst."

Educational Function

Proponents of belts on school buses argue that the educational function of the restraints is as important as the safety function. Although seat belts are standard equipment in new cars and the public is often encouraged in advertisements to use them, only 11 to 14 percent of the nation's population regularly buckles up, the proponents point out.

"Don't think you can educate children to wear seat belts in cars if you don't have them buckle up in the buses," said Clarence M. Ditlow, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety, a consumer group that has long supported a requirement for seat belts in school buses. States are inconsistent when they require that children be restrained in cars but not in school buses, he said.

Ms. Fast said the installation of belts would add about $1,000 to the $35,000 price tag on a new 66-passenger school bus. Since the average life of a bus is 13 years, the annual cost of the belts would be $77 per bus, she argued.

Arguments Against Belts

Opponents of mandatory seat-belt laws, led by the National School Transportation Association, a trade group representing 1,000 privateel5lschool-bus contractors, contend that the belts not only are costly but may not enhance safety and may actually be a hazard, particularly since there is little adult supervision on buses. They note that the buckles themselves could be used as weapons, could trip children walking in the aisles, or, in the event of an accident, could trap children in a wrecked or burning bus.

Karen Finkel, executive director of the transportation association, said the size and height of a school bus, along with the built-in safety features required by federal law since 1977, provide a "satisfactory" amount of safety.

But those who favor the belts say that districts with seat belts in their buses have experienced no such problems. In Ms. Fast's community of Ardsley, where seat belts have been required in Union 3 School District's eight contracted school buses since 1983, the attributes of the belts were tested for the first time last month, when one bus was sideswiped by a car and knocked into a guardrail. All of the 27 children on the bus were wearing seat belts; none were injured, according to Josephine Quagliata, spokesman for the district.

Eight years ago, the trade association was instrumental in persuading the nhtsa to omit any seat-belt requirement from its school-bus construction standards. Ms. Fast's hope is that her campaign will gain enough momentum to force the federal agency to reconsider that decision.

History of Federal Standards

In 1976, the Congress required the transportation-safety agency to upgrade construction standards for school buses, a move many thought was long overdue, Ms. Fast said.

The standard enacted in 1977 required what is known as "compart-mentalization," a special design of the seating area intended to minimize injuries through the use of such features as stronger seats, sturdier seat anchors, and high, padded seatbacks.

The agency considered requiring seat belts or built-in anchorage points to which seat belts could be easily attached if a district wanted to add them. But the proposed requirements were dropped from the final version of the standard following vigorous lobbying by the transportation association.

The bus operators "expressed the view that the presence of seat-belt anchorages would encourage the installation of seat belts by school districts without providing the necessary supervision of their use," according to the preamble of the safety standard.

The contractors did not want to have to pay for the added cost of the anchorages--estimated at the time at $300 per bus--and were concerned about their liability if children were injured while not wearing seat belts, according to federal officials.

"Why should someone have to pay the cost for something that is not wanted?" Ms. Finkel commented this month. "Why put anything on a vehicle if you're never going to use it?"

Mr. Soule of the nhtsa said the U.S. Department of Transportation continues to hold that compartmentalization--which he described as "a passive approach to safety"--provides an "adequate level of protection." The department has no plans to add seat belts or anchorage points to its school-bus-construction standards, he said.

The coalition will continue its efforts on the local, state, and federal levels to get seat belts installed on new school buses and laws requiring them written and passed. "This is a national network," Ms. Fast said. "We are organized."

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