School Climate & Safety

New Push for Seat Belts on Buses in Wake of Crash

By Evie Blad — December 13, 2016 3 min read
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As families mourn the deaths of six children killed in a school bus accident in Chattanooga, Tenn., last month, some public officials there have renewed calls to mandate seat belts in school buses.

The Nov. 21 accident happened when the bus, carrying 37 elementary school students, hit a tree, flipped on its side, and split open. It was not equipped with seat belts.

A few weeks later, a bus carrying a Texas cheerleading squad was struck by a semitrailer as it returned to the Iraan-Sheffield school district after a football game, killing one and injuring seven. That bus also did not have seat belts.

The crashes have reignited a national debate about the potential benefits and challenges of equipping school buses with seat belts.

If the bus is rolling over, rather than having bodies flying, it would make better sense to have them strapped in."

In Chattanooga, officials charged the driver, Johnthony Walker, 24, with five counts of vehicular homicide, reckless endangerment, and reckless driving. While parallel local and federal investigations continue, local authorities have said Walker, who was contracted through Durham School Services, was apparently traveling above the 30 miles per hour speed limit.

Lawmakers in the state have been calling for changes and reviews of school bus policy ever since. U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn., introduced a bill that would provide federal grants to retrofit existing school buses with seat belts or allow schools to purchase new ones.

Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam, a Republican, has called for a review of school bus policies—from how private contractors are screened to whether students are required to wear seat belts.

While many details about the crash remain unclear, state Rep. Gerald McCormick, a Republican from Chattanooga, said he will file a bill to mandate seat belts on Tennessee school buses. McCormick told the Chattanooga Times Free Press newspaper that he couldn’t say for certain whether seat belts would have saved the children’s lives.

“No, I don’t know,” he said. “But sometimes you have to look at common sense. If the bus is rolling over, rather than having bodies flying, it would make better sense to have them strapped in. It’s the same concept you have in a car. I think common sense tells us it would help more often than not.”

Officials with the National Transportation Safety Board said their review of the accident would include exploring whether restraints would have limited injuries.

State Requirements

Just six states require seat belts on full-size school buses, but not all of them provide funding to meet the mandate, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Lawmakers in Tennessee previously voted down a bill to require seat belts out of concerns it might cost $5,000 to $10,000 to equip a single bus, News Channel 5 in Nashville reported. That legislation came after a Knox County rollover crash two years ago killed two children and a teacher’s aide.

In a November 2015 speech, Mark Rosekind, the administrator for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, made headlines when he said the agency believes every school bus should have a three-point seat belt, a reversal of the federal agency’s previous position.

Rosekind re-upped his call after the Tennessee crash. While school buses are still the safest way for children to get to school, they “can be safer,” he said.

Opponents of seat belt requirements have said in the past that a concept called “compartmentalization,” which involves carefully spaced seats and tall seat backs, is enough to keep children safe in an accident.

Even in states with seat belt requirements, seat belts on buses are often worn improperly or not at all, the NTSB acknowledged in a 2011 investigation of a New Jersey bus accident. That investigation concluded that buses that rely solely on compartmentalization or lap belts present a risk to riders. Full, three-point safety belts provide the greatest level of protection, but they also require some training for children, officials have said. The National Association of Pupil Transportation, which represents school transportation officials around the country, is calling for more research on how and whether students would use seat belts and how they would affect overall rider safety.

Questions About the Driver

Besides the seat belt issue, investigators of the Chattanooga crash will look into the role that the driver played in the accident. That includes a look at his driving history and blood tests for drugs and alcohol, officials said.

A mother of one of the students who died in the accident said she’d previously reported inappropriate behavior by the driver. And local news outlets reported that Walker was involved in a September accident while driving a school bus.

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A version of this article appeared in the December 14, 2016 edition of Education Week as Debate Renews Over Seat Belts in Buses After Deadly Crash

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