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Panel Says School-Bus Seat Belts Not Cost-Effective

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Washington--There are cheaper and more effective ways of improving school-bus safety than by requiring the installation of seat belts, the National Research Council said in a report released here last week.

More lives could be saved for far less money, the nrc argued, if the minimum height of school-bus seat backs was raised from the standard 20 inches to 24 inches.

The research arm of the National Academy of Sciences projected that one death and several dozen serious injuries might be avoided each year if all school buses were equipped with safety belts at a cost of $40 million annually. The estimate as4sumed that half of all riders would use the devices.

But raising the height of seat backs by four inches could save two or three lives and prevent up to 95 serious injuries for only $6 million annually, the council estimated.

As a result, "the overall potential benefit of requiring seat belts in large school buses is insufficient to justify a federal standard mandating installation," the report concluded.

Noting that four times as many children are killed while trying to board or leave buses as while riding on them, the nrc also called on school officials to devote more attention to bus-driver training and to safety features that would alert other motorists of the presence of children.

In addition, the report urged all districts and states to move "as rapidly as possible" to replace buses built before 1977, when federal standards were strengthened. About one-fifth of the nation's 390,000 school buses were built before that point.

A report issued by the National Transportation Safety Board in late March also recommended that the older buses be retired. (See Education Week, April 5, 1989.)

The Congress had directed the nrc to study seat belts and other safety measures on school buses as part of a 1987 law. That measure also required the U.S. Department of Transportation, which funded the study, to review the recommendations and to decide whether to adopt them within 60 days.

'Ought To Be Ashamed'

The new report's stand against a federal seat-belt mandate was greeted with dismay by some parent groups, which have long pressed state officials to adopt such a standard.

New York is the only state to require seat belts on school buses. It and Illinois are also the only states that currently require seats with 24-inch backs.

"Frankly, they ought to be ashamed of themselves," said Phyllis Sheps, safety chairman for the New Jersey pta and the state representative to the National Coalition for Seat Belts on School Buses. "How do you put a price on your child?"

Not requiring seat belts on school buses gives children a mixed message about the importance of safety restraints, Ms. Sheps argued. "To have children know that up to when they sit on a bus they have to buckle in, that's no way to educate them," she said.

But private school-bus operators, who have consistently opposed a seat-belt mandate, reacted favorably to the nrc's conclusions. The report "reinforces what essentially all the industry has believed for many years," said Karen Finkel, executive director of the National School Transportation Association.

In 1985, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration also concluded that such a mandate was unnecessary.

Those who oppose requiring seat belts also argue that the devices frequently are misused by students. At a press conference announcing the report's findings, some of the 13 panelists said that they had heard stories of children hitting each other with belt buckles, or linking two belts together across an aisle to trip others.

Although panel members agreed that a federal standard was not needed, a minority felt that states and local districts should be encouraged to equip their vehicles with belts.

B.J. Campbell, director of the Highway Safety Research Center at the University of North Carolina, said that he and four other panel members believed that seat belts on school buses would be worthwhile if "you have a program, from the superintendent on down, to get these kids to use them."

Other Recommendations

Higher seat backs would be beneficial, the panel concluded, because they are better able to absorb the violent motion of a child being thrown during a collision.

The 1977 standards, which set a 20-inch minimum for seat backs, were based on a similar reasoning. Along with requirements for extra seat padding and less knee room, they were designed to protect riders from the impact of a crash by "compartmentalizing" seating.

Because the higher backs would protect seated children, but not those who were standing, the report called on the 14 states that currently allow buses to carry more passengers than there are seats to change their regulations.

School-bus operators have not taken a position on whether higher seat backs would offer more protection, Ms. Finkel said.

To reduce the approximately 40 pupil deaths that occur each year in school-bus boarding zones, the panel urged states to improve training for bus drivers and pedestrian-safety programs for students.

Fatalities also could be reduced if all buses were equipped with special safety features, such as stop-signal arms, improved mirrors, and electronic and mechanical sensors, the report maintained.

Bills introduced in both chambers of the Congress would require school buses to have improved mirrors.

But some state school-transportation officials reacted to the report by expressing skepticism about the willingness of legislatures to earmark more funds for bus safety.

Ron Kinney, the supervisor of school transportation for California, predicted that convincing lawmakers to spend the more than $5 million needed to equip all buses in the state with stop-arm signals would be difficult "in the real world here of costs."

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