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The School Bus

The government could propose safety improvements
later this year

- or not -

By James Kraemer
2005, All Rights Reserved. Click Here to send us an Email

JULY 14, 2007 - UPDATED JULY 19, 2007

July 2007 Seat Belts Conference In Washington Discuss 3-Point Seat Belts On school Buses

The federal government is taking another look at the issue of seat belts on the school buses. Nicole Nason, head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, organized the conference.

On July 11, 2007 NHTSA held the conference with safety experts, educators and bus manufacturers. They're debating again whether seat belts are needed and if so what kinds of restraints.

Media General News Service (www.mgnewsservice.com), Gil Klein, a national correspondent in Media General's Washington Bureau, reported some fascinating quotes from school officials in their July 11 2007 News story, "Seat belts & buses: Virginia officials weigh in."

"For the most part, lap belts provided entertainment for the kids," said Linda Farbry, director of transportation for Fairfax County, Va., public schools, who had been a school bus driver in the 1980s when the county tried them out. "They would use them as lariats to swing around and launch at other students."

And this: "We have had no known crashes where lap belts would have saved lives," said Charles Hood, Florida's director of school transportation, where lap belts have been required since 2000.

Then this is the same paragraph,

"We did have one preventable death where if a high school student had been wearing a belt, she likely would not have been killed."

That one death probably refers to a new state of the art school bus equipped with seat belts but use was not enforced.

A Nov. 13, 2004 Palm Beach Post story, "The Acreage School Bus Crash," reported that Diana Kautz, 15, died in a school bus designed to be the safest on the road. It came with special padding, seat belts and a security camera to ensure that students got to and from school without harm. The camera recorded the fact that Diana, 15, was not wearing her seat belt.

The South Florida Sun-Sentinel elaborated in a Nov. 14 (2004) story that, "No one, including the driver, was wearing a seat belt when that school bus crashed and rolled, killing a high school freshman, students onboard the bus said."

That crash involved a 1.9 million settlement involving a school bus fully equipped with seat belts but use not enforced.

"Simply adding a seat belt won't provide much protection with the current design of the seat," said Deborah Hersman, spokesperson for the National Transportation safety board (NTSB), which investigates accidents.

Hersman's concern seems with lap belts, in that it is alleged horrific injuries can result with lap belts when children's bodies jackknife, smashing their heads into the seats in front of them and increasing the risk of neck injuries during a crash. Lap and shoulder straps are safer if they are worn properly - but more dangerous if not, Hersman said in the General News story.

However, actual reports concerning this issue specifically refer to motor vehicles, not school buses. If there have been horrific injuries during school bus crashes involving wearing seat belts they would seem extremely rare. Some children in such violent circumstances may have died as well without use of a restraint.

Increased safety is often reported, even with lap belts, as was the case with the March 2000 Tennessee/Georgia bus/train crash when it was discovered that a small child violently thrashed around in her seat had received the least injuries was wearing a seat belt.

In the Tennessee/Georgia crash a freight train traveling at 51MPH slammed into a Murray County School District (Georgia) school bus traveling at 15MPH. The bus video showed a little girl violently thrashed every which way in her seat while restrained by a lap belt.

The other Northwest Elementary School children in that crash were slammed about the bus bloodied and injured, some knocked unconscious and some ejected from the bus. Kayla Silvers, 6, Daniel Pack, 9, and Amber Pritchett, 9, died. One of the injured children suffered permanent brain damage. The eggs in the industry's egg-carton compartmentalization example would have all broken.

During the accident sequence, the driver and three children were ejected. Of the two ejected children, one received serious injuries and the other was fatally injured - the driver, who had been wearing a lap/shoulder belt that broke during the crash sequence, received minor injuries. Of the four children who remained inside the bus, two were fatally injured, one sustained serious injuries, and one child, who was restrained by a lap belt, received minor injuries. (Includes excerpts from NTSB Highway Accident Report)

The NTSB accident investigation report of the bus-train collision again reaffirmed past conclusions concerning the limits of compartmentalization:

  • 12.) The lap belt-restrained passenger sustained minor abdominal injuries as a result of theseverity of the accident and the pivoting of her body about the lap belt; she was not ejected due to the use and proper fitting of the available restraint.
  • 13.) Had the available restraints in the first row been appropriately worn in this accident and had they fit properly, the two front-row passengers probably would not have been ejected during the accident sequence and the level of injury may have been reduced. NTSB Highway Accident Report (pg. 59).

    "Contributing to the injuries of the school bus passengers outside of the area of intrusion were incomplete compartmentalization and a lack of energy-absorbing material on interior surfaces." Quoted from the NTSB Abstract | Crash Simulations

    There certainly exist plenty of actual press reports accumulated over the years concerning children smashing their heads, brain injuries and back injuries, even ejection's, life altering catastrophes and deaths, but these reports seem to refer to school buses not equipped with belts and where use is not enforced.

    An Arizona bus crash permanently disabling two of that state's students for life in a 1996 school bus crash brought a settlement of nearly $30,000,000.00, adequate to equip over 20,000 school buses with seat belts and may have saved the livelihoods of the two high school students as an added benefit.

    One student, a genius, was reduced to a vegetable. The other student, a star athlete, is now a paraplegic. Although it can be said these students potential livelihoods had ended, neither student was counted as killed, because neither student had died.

    Ken Hedgecock of Thomas Built Buses said that a typical 72-passenger school bus costs $75,000.00. The same bus with shoulder and lap belts holds only 55 passengers and costs $83,000.00," according to Hedgecock's calculations.

    Holy Toledo! $8,000.00 to install belts on a new school bus during production, one of the highest figures I've personally heard for seat restraints. That would cut the Arizona number down to only 4,000 school buses equipped with restraints.

    From Hedgecock's high-dollar punch against belts came this revaluation from Hersman. "Anything that reduces bus readership will increase the chance of a fatality," Hersman said.

    WCPO TV 9 NEWS (www.wcpo.com) reporting on the same conference presented that NHTSA Administrator Nicole Nason said, "If you make the buses too expensive, the school districts will be able to afford fewer buses," says Nason. "And fewer kids will get to ride the big yellow bus to school."

    Arthur L. Yeager, a participant at the conference and an expert on seat belt use in New Jersey where 16,000 school buses were equipped with seat belts by 1998, rejected these officials opinions.

    Yeager's follow-up to 2safeschools mentions, "Seat design has not been a problem in New Jersey to the best of my knowledge."

    The cost Yeager gave to currently equip school buses with belts in New Jersey ranged between $1100.00 and $1500.00 over the base price of the bus.

    Concerning capacity issues Yeager said, "Those with actual experience with the 3-point belts reported an actual increase in seating capacity for middle school and high school children." Children on unbelted buses are currently assigned two to a seat, four across and now the buses can accommodate five across - a 25% increase in capacity.

    "Fewer buses and less cost!" According to Yeager.

    Jim Freed, Midwest Regional Director, National Coalition for School Bus Safety (www.ncsbs.org), apparently was not at this conference. In Aug of 2005 and concerning reports on school bus crash sled tests, which some reports apparently were contrary to government and industry reports, he presented that the unbelted dummies did not fair so well in those tests.

    Freed reported the 2002 Large School Bus Crashworthiness report showed that three point lap/shoulder belts systems would reduce fatalities and injuries.

    "Three point safety belt systems would reduce injuries by 40 to 75% and fatalities by a much higher number," he said.

    Keep in mind that a significant number of injuries happen during the normal operation of the school bus as well, another little known fact the industry often fails to mention in press releases and news stories.

    When an unexpected bump or a sudden maneuver is necessary during the normal operation of the school bus, which results in injuries, then the lack of seat belts on that bus, or the lack of use required may help provide the bus driver a valid defense.

    School and industry official responses in stories concerning seat belts on the buses tend to reveal that the issue is not about seat belts at all, or about cost when not over engineering these devices. Tens of thousands of school buses are equipped with lap belts and other restraints in school districts where the cost was somehow overcome.

    Had the industry not made everyone so paranoid over lap belts on the big school buses it might be considered resonalbly safe to install these simple devices for most children to use. Researchers have repeatedly pointed out that the forces involved with school buses are different than that of automobiles - that these safety devices installed on the school buses would do, "more good than harm." (This statement is the actual conclusion from school bus crash test reports.)

    Former NTSB chairman Jim Hall stated in a Nov 21, 2006 NewsChannel 5 story, 'Bus Crash Revives Debate Over Seat Belts,' "All you have to do is know one family that goes through the devastation of the loss of a child, you'll do everything in your power to ensure that all of the vehicles that your kids get on have seat belts."

    Regardless, press stories concerning belts on the school buses, more than anything else, simply seem to reveal the reality that belts and most any other safety device and system is useless where the adults involved do not have their act together helping their bus drivers keep kids safe.

    According to the same Media General news story, Jeffrey Tsai, a North Carolina State University researcher, rode with students on school buses outfitted with shoulder and lap belts two years after the state purchased 13 buses equipped with the devices. He said that he found no middle or high school student with one on.

    "I asked them why, and they said the law didn't require it," Tsai said.

    Who really is in charge of those school buses? Too often at some school districts it simply does not seem to be the adults involved.

    Seat restraints may turn out to be the perfect tool to help separate the dysfunctional schools and systems from the functional.

    About the author: James Kraemer often presents unique opinions that can sometimes be in conflict with school bus industry and related government agencies views. The opinions expressed in his commentaries are his own and are not necessarily those of 2safeschools sponsorships or other participants related to 2safeschools school bus safety education activities.

    By James Kraemer
    2005, All Rights Reserved. Click Here to send us an Email

    Media General's national correspondent Gil Klein can be reached at [email protected]

    Notes of Interest

    It was estimated that by 1998 over 725 school districts in this country had seat belts installed on their big buses.

    Five states - New York, New Jersey, Louisiana, Florida and California - now require lap or three-point shoulder belts on their big school buses.

    In June 2007, Gov. Rick Perry signed into law a requirement that all school buses in Texas must be equipped with seat belts after Sept. 1, 2010.

    New York State law requires that large school buses manufactured after July 1, 1987, be equipped with seat belts. Children under the age of four riding on school buses must ride in federally certified child safety seats. School bus drivers are required to wear their seat belts. Each school district sets its own policy on seat belt use. About 36,000 school buses were equipped with belts by 1998.

    Belts became a non-issue in New Jersey since required installation after 1992 with some sixteen thousand school buses equipped with seat belts by 1998.

    Some school districts in states using belts but not mandated include Arizona, Colorado, Connecticut, Georgia, Idaho, Illinois, Massachusetts, Missouri, New Hampshire, Ohio, Oklahoma and Vermont.

    NHTSA and injury protection associations recommend students riding school buses not equipped with seat belts sit in their seats within the compartment and in the same fashion as would be the case when wearing a seat restraint.

    How to help keep your child's school bus safe - A short article from "In Loving Memory."

    American Academy of Pediatrics Report - School Transportation Safety Report Revised July 2007. The American Academy of Pediatrics is an organization of 60,000 primary care pediatricians, pediatric medical subspecialists and pediatric surgical specialists dedicated to the health, safety and well being of infants, children, adolescents and young adults. School Bus Injuries Video

    It was July 27, 2006, nearly a year before Gov. Perry signed into Texas the new school bus seat belt requirements one community had already become the first in Texas to order Lap-Shoulder Seat belts on all new school buses purchased. In January 2007, the first of the new buses had arrived. Who are they and how did they help encourage the new Texas law requiring seat belts on their school buses? Read about a leading Texas community with 30 new school buses already equipped with seat belts.

    FREE School Bus Safety Ads & Photo Library
    Post Check, Hostage Takeover, Bus Fire and special effects photos now available Free to use at websites, in newsletters, memos, the local press, letters to parents and more. This is a very popular Website. If you can't get in bookmark the page and try again later.

    More on the seatbelts issue is available on CD. The CD now contains over 850 files covering a wide range of school bus safety issues, free photos and graphics, bus safety related video previews, as well as an abundance of school bus safety management related forms, an easy to use workplace activity calendar, a variety of school bus safety related adult and children's activities and more. Click Here for more information.

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