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Published in Print: September 16, 1998, as Demand Grows For Seat Belts On New Buses

Demand Grows For Seat Belts On New Buses

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After idling for two decades, the debate over whether to put seat belts in school buses has shifted into high gear once again.

Last month, federal transportation officials launched a two-year study of school bus safety that is likely to change government policy, requiring new safety features to protect children in a crash. And shortly before that, the National PTA called for seat belts on new buses.

Parent activists are hopeful that the battle over seat belts they've long fought against the government and the school transportation industry is about to be won. Industry officials, on the other hand, hold to the view that seat belts are at best an inefficient way to improve school bus safety, and they doubt that regulators are about to mandate them.

But many observers agree that the time is ripe for a new direction.

"People are tired of this issue," said Bill Paul, the editor and publisher of the trade journal School Transportation News. "They want it resolved" one way or the other.

In the past two decades, more than two dozen state legislatures have considered mandating seat belts on buses. Despite the widespread effort, which has also touched Congress, only two states have enacted laws: New York, in 1987, and New Jersey, in 1992. Neither law requires retrofitting buses currently in service.

Media Attention

Some of the pressure to reconsider seat belts comes from three televised reports this year on CNN. The cable network spotlighted accidents where school buses were hit from the side or rolled over, including interviews with victims of a 1996 bus rollover in Flagstaff, Ariz., and a 1997 collision in Monticello, Minn.

There is broad agreement that the current protection system for big buses, which relies on high-backed seats and impact-absorbing materials to keep children safe in "compartments" during a crash, is less effective in such cases than in front- and rear-end collisions. It also falls short when a bus rolls over in an accident.

In side-impact or rollover accidents, more children are potentially tossed into aisles or onto the ceiling rather than against padding. But no one knows exactly how much difference the kind of impact makes.

The CNN reports also looked at injuries rather than fatalities, which have been the traditional focus of school bus safety efforts. The reports said school bus injuries have nearly doubled in the past 12 years.

School-Bus-Related Fatalities

SOURCE: National Highway Traffic Safety Administration

Regulators and safety authorities, on the other hand, disagree. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which is overseeing the new $1 million study, says that by its count, injuries have remained roughly the same in that period. CNN did not respond to a request for comment.

Enviable Record

What's not in doubt is the enviable safety record of big school buses. By all accounts, they are just about the safest vehicles on the road, with an average of 11 passenger fatalities a year over about the past decade. In contrast, almost 5,500 children under the age of 19 die annually in other types of vehicles.

Fatality Rates

Harlan E. Tull, the administrative director of the Association of State Pupil Transportation Directors, says the nation's roughly 440,000 public school buses are more than four times safer than the family car when it comes to passengers. "One death is too many," he said, "but the school bus is the safest mode of transportation we have in America."

Most of the advantage comes from the buses' superior height and weight, as well as the slower speeds at which they generally travel. But changes since 1977, the last time federal regulators increased the internal engineering requirements for big school buses, have also had a significant effect.

Industry officials, government regulators, and school district administrators maintain that the large buses are so safe that they can't get much safer. "Seat belts are not going to make much of a difference, and they might cause harm," said Diane Wigle, a highway-safety specialist with NHTSA in Washington.

Difference for Small Buses

Ms. Wigle added, however, that the same cannot be said of smaller school buses like the ones that transport many special education students. The government requires seat belts in those buses, which do not offer as much protection otherwise.

And soon Ms. Wigle hopes the federal government will begin requiring child safety seats or their equivalent for children under age 4 who ride school buses of any size, following recommendations she is currently drafting.

In the study leading up to those recommendations, NHTSA tests involving simulated crashes suggested that the use of seat belts for small children would save lives, but cast doubt on the potential gain for older children. The results reflect those of a 1984 Canadian study, which seat belt proponents contend is seriously flawed.

That study and much of the current debate involves restraints across the student's lap, and not the shoulder-harness belts found in today's cars and vans. Shoulder restraints are more difficult and expensive to install, and are also likely to cut down on the number of students a bus can carry.

If children are held in with lap belts only, most school bus seats are too close together, opponents of the belts argue. Not only do belted children hit their heads in a collision, they do so with more force than unbelted children because they are jackknifing forward from the waist. Opponents also point to the possibility of abdominal injuries, especially from misfitted belts.

On the other hand, several medical groups, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, endorse the lap belts, saying they would save lives.

"Seat belts will compromise safety to a small degree," argued David J. Cullen, the Florida PTA board member who with his wife, Mary-Lynn, spearheaded the drive for the National PTA resolution on seat belts. "But [they] will also provide the important benefit of keeping a child in the protected zone."

To resolve some of those issues, Ms. Wigle and others at NHTSA plan a new full-scale crash test, the kind the agency has not conducted since the 1970s.

Plans for the new test--part of the ongoing study--call for a broadside collision. "We're probably going to run a large truck into the side of a school bus," Ms. Wigle said.

Seat belt advocates say it is past time for such a test, and recent fatality statistics tend to bear them out. According to Ms. Wigle, of the 34 passenger fatalities in school bus collisions from 1991 to 1996, 59 percent resulted from side, as opposed to front or rear, collisions.

Costs vs. Benefits

Even if seat belts bring about small improvements in safety, industry and school transportation officials say, they may not be the best place to put limited funds.

"The problem is unbelievably small compared to other highway accidents," Ms. Wigle said. "You want to put the money where you get the most bang for the buck."

For every child killed while riding as a passenger inside a school bus, Ms. Wigle and other experts note, about three die as they are entering or leaving the bus. About half are run over by their own buses, and half are killed by drivers illegally passing a stopped bus. In recent years, federal officials have mounted a campaign to improve safety in the "danger zone" around a bus.

Another issue that often gets lost in the debate is the difficulty posed by compliance. Unlike the compartmentalization approach, seat belts require children to comply with a safety rule: Buckle up.

Ultimately, that means compliant children will receive more protection than youngsters who don't follow the rules.

And while the addition of lap belts on new buses, which cost about $50,000 to $70,000 each, is fairly inexpensive--less than $1,800 per busone study suggests that the cost of maintaining the belts on the typical bus could be as much as $600 annually. For districts with hundreds of school buses, that would mean a substantial expense.

Advocates, though, point to the possible long-term benefits of reinforcing the use of seat belts among children.

Opponents of safety belts on buses argue that parents are easily--too easily--persuaded of the value of seat belts by the fact that the belts are required in automobiles. And critics say that parents and politicians call for seat belts in the wake of a tragic accident, sometimes whether or not they would have made a difference.

Emotional Issue

Charles R. Hott, a traffic-safety engineer for NHTSA who is helping plan the new study, answers about 300 letters a year to the White House or Congress from people concerned about the lack of seat belts in school buses. "It's a very emotional issue, and many people don't understand the occupant-protection principles involved," he said.

As the debate continues, some proponents hope a shoulder-harness system recently developed for buses in Australia might resolve the conflict. Opponents, on the other hand, tend to envision improvements to compartmentalization that will further reduce fatalities, especially in side-impact and rollover accidents. Such improvements could include wall padding and padded arm rests.

But both sides believe there will be a policy change in the next few years. "I think the issue is going to peak really soon," said Allan L. Ross, a parent who heads the newly revitalized National Coalition for School Bus Safety, an advocacy group that favors seat belts.

Vol. 18, Issue 2, Pages 1,14

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