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Plan To Mandate Seat Belts On School Buses Debated

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WASHINGTON--A Congressman, an emergency-room physician, and a school administrator urged the House Education and Labor Committee last week to approve legislation that would withhold part of a school district's federal education aid if it failed to install seat belts in school buses and regularly inspect the vehicles.

But the representative of a bus contractors' association and a superintendent representing several school-administrators' associations said research on the efficacy of seat belts in buses was inconclusive, and asked the committee to take no action until the National Academy of Sciences completes a Congressionally mandated study of school-bus safety.

'Seat Belts Save Lives'

"I'd like to see a study done, but it's only going to prove what's already been proven in many ways,'' Representative Lawrence J. Smith, the Florida Democrat who is sponsoring the bill, said in testimony before the committee.

"We know seat belts save lives,'' he said. "The data are there. Why is it that we won't make a nexus between that and school buses?''

Installing seat belts would cost only $750 to $1,500 per bus, Representative Smith said, and would help educate children on the importance of using safety belts as well as protecting them while they were riding in buses.

The bill, HR 1815, would require districts receiving federal education funds to install lap belts in buses acquired after the law took effect, and to inspect all buses annually. The law would apply to districts employing private transportation services as well as those operating their own fleets.

Districts failing to comply with the law would lose 5 percent of any federal grants awarded for the fiscal year following the bill's enactment, 10 percent the next year, and 15 percent in subsequent years through 1996. All federal education aid would be withheld from districts failing to comply by Jan. 1, 1997.

Donald E. Dearborn, superintendent of the Galloway Township Public Schools in Smithville, N.J., called the cutoff provision an unfair way to enforce seat-belt requirements.

"Who would possibly consider penalizing handicapped and disadvantaged children for [districts'] noncompliance with seat-belt mandates?'' he asked.

Representative Smith argued that sanctions are necessary and that the proposed implementation schedule would allow the law to be amended if the National Academy of Sciences so recommended. The academy study, mandated by a provision of the massive highway bill enacted in March, is to be completed by September 1988.

Karen Finkel, executive director of the National School Transportation Association, said school buses are statistically the safest form of ground transportation, pointing out that the 28,000 accidents, 14 deaths, and 8,400 injuries that Representative Smith cited for the 1984-85 school year are dwarfed by the total number of deaths and injuries that occur in motor vehicles.

The size, visibility, and low speed of school buses reduce the chance of accidents, she said, and federal safety requirements enacted in 1977 have made buses safer in the event of an accident.

Endorsed Testimony

The most important mandated improvement, known as "compartmentalization,'' calls for higher and more extensively padded seat backs.

Mr. Dearborn argued that compartmentalization is a more effective and less expensive safety mechanism than seat belts, and noted that it works no matter how many children occupy a seat.

He said his testimony was endorsed by the American Association of School Administrators, the National School Boards Association, the National Association of Secondary School Principals, the National Association of Elementary School Principals, and the Association of School Business Officials International.

Ms. Finkel and Mr. Dearborn emphasized two widely-publicized studies that concluded seat belts would not improve school-bus safety and might actually be harmful.

A Canadian transportation agency that in 1985 conducted a simulated frontal collision using a school bus concluded that current safety features worked well, and that belted children could receive more severe head injuries in head-on collisions than unbelted children.

The National Transportation Safety Board recently released a study of 43 school-bus crashes that had resulted in 13 deaths and more than 500 injuries, and concluded that seat belts probably would not have reduced those figures. Only 3.6 percent of the children riding in the 39 buses without belts were injured, and most of the fatalities involved head-on collisions, in which belts would not have been helpful, the safety board concluded.

Studies Faulted

Proponents of HR 1815 argued that the N.T.S.B. did not study enough belt-equipped buses, and did not consider how comparable the accidents were. The Canadian study relied on one crash simulation, did not use a representative sample of child-sized dummies, and used a bus with below-standard seats that would contribute to greater head injuries, the proponents said.

Representative Smith faulted both studies for concentrating on frontal collisions, when most bus accidents involve side collisions or rollovers, the types of accidents where seat belts are most effective. Half of all deaths in school-bus accidents are caused when a bus rolls over, and 14.7 percent occur in side collisions, he said.

But the proponents' primary argument was that seat belts have been proven to be effective in passenger cars and that common sense indicates this would also be true in buses.

E. Jackson Allison, a member of the board of directors of the American College of Emergency Physicians, said his experiences in treating victims of school-bus accidents supports that position as well.

"I honestly do not know how many lives would have been saved had the children been wearing seat belts,'' he said. "However, I am convinced that the injuries sustained by the children who lived would have been lessened had the children not been thrown about ... or ejected from the bus.''

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