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Panel Finds Belts Add Little to Bus Safety

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WASHINGTON--In a report expected to receive close scrutiny from parents and school officials, the National Transportation Safety Board has concluded that safety belts on school buses probably do not reduce a child's chances of becoming seriously injured in an accident.

The board based its findings on a review of 43 accidents involving school buses manufactured after 1977--when the federal government upgraded its safety standards for large school buses. None of the buses examined during the 29-month study had been equipped with seat belts.

The researchers found that only 3.6 percent of the 1,119 children involved in the bus accidents studied sustained "more than moderate injuries.'' Ninety percent of the students suffered slight injuries or none at all.

The 13 passengers who died in the crashes were involved in head-on collisions and were sitting in the line of greatest impact, where, the study says, "it is unlikely that the availability of any type of restraint would have improved the injury outcome.''

"School-bus passengers were generally well protected,'' the study concludes. It also advises school districts not to spend money to equip their school buses with seat belts.

The conclusions and recommendations in the report were approved during a meeting of the federal transportation board on March 26. Completed copies of the 400-page report will not be available for another month.

The study's results are expected to influence the way that an estimated 22 million children are transported to and from school each day. School buses travel an average of 18 million miles annually, according to the National Safety Council, and roughly 13 student-passengers die each year in school-bus accidents.

In recent years, as more states passed laws requiring seat-belt use in cars, more than 140 school districts have also moved to equip their school buses with safety belts, said Suzanne Stack, author of the N.T.S.B. study.

Last summer, New York became the first state to pass a law requiring all school buses manufactured after July 1987 to be equipped with seat belts. More recently, the Boston School Committee voted in November to install seat belts in the 310 city school buses that do not already have them. (See Education Week, Sept. 10, 1986, and Nov. 26, 1986.)

School boards and legislators are still debating the New York law. The New York State School Boards Association is currently lobbying in support of bills that would delay implementation of the new law until state transportation officials can conduct their own study.

"This federal study adds credence to the fact that more studies are needed here in New York,'' said Colleen Gray, a legislative assistant for the association.

However, proponents of seat-belt use in school buses were critical of the federal study.

"If a seat belt can prevent one maiming, one death, one serious injury, it is justified,'' said Carol Fast, founder of the National Coalition for Seat Belts on School Buses. Now a staff member on the transportation committee of the New York state Senate, she said she expected other experts in the field to rebut the study in the months ahead.

Other Safety Flaws

In their report, the federal investigators said school officials would be wiser to use the money they might spend on seat-belt installation to reduce the risk of injury from other safety flaws in their buses.

Seat cushions, for example, were found to be poorly secured, often becoming detached during an accident to block an exit, hit children in the head, or cause them to drop through the seat frames, Ms. Stack said.

Panels covering wiring and controls on the bus, she said, often separated, exposing sharp surfaces. And in 17 percent of the buses, joints in the floor panels did not meet the federal standards for stress, she said.

The transportation-safety board made five recommendations on how bus manufacturers, the federal agency that sets safety standards for buses, and school officials could eliminate these defects.

The board also emphasized the importance of safety belts for school-bus drivers, because, board members said, the drivers always must remain in control of the vehicle.

Copies of the report will be available for sale next month from the National Technical Information Service, 5285 Port Royal Road, Springfield, Va. 22161. The study's identification number is PB-87-917002.

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