School bus safety being debated again

Published 12:53 pm Tuesday, November 20, 2007

By Staff
How safe is safe enough?
Since seat belts were first required for cars in 1968, the debate on why they aren’t standard equipment on school buses has raged on. It is still raging, and on the surface, it seems a fair question.
Anyone who has ridden with one squirmy child in a car has to realize what it would be like to try and keep 60 or 100 of them properly fastened in their seat belts and still drive the bus. A shoulder harness that isn’t worn correctly stands to do more harm than good in the event of an accident, according to government studies. Just wearing a lap belt alone could harm a small child more than an accident itself. That’s why laws require small children be placed in child safety seats when riding in cars.
A report issued in 2002 says the fatality rate for school buses is 0.2 deaths per 100 million vehicle miles traveled. That compares to a rate of 1.5 fatalities for those children riding with their parents in the family car. Would seat belts make school buses even safer or simply more expensive? Or would seat belts expose some children to more danger?
From the tires on up, school buses are built from the start to be safer than any car or an SUV. For one, they’re huge and high off the ground, and by design they don’t move fast. They are also equipped with high seat backs, and the seats are filled with energy-absorbing material. The seats are also placed close together to form compartments and have extra-strong anchors to hold them in place. U.S. Secretary of Transportation Mary Peters likens it to putting eggs in an egg carton. Children aren’t buckled in, but they are cushioned.
Peters was north of Raleigh on Monday to announce proposed new rules on bus safety because Morrisville Elementary School was among the first schools in the country to equip some of its new school buses with seat belts.
This past summer, National Highway Traffic Safety Administrator Nicole Nason brought together the nation’s leading experts in school transportation, along with the school-bus and seat manufacturers.
As a result, Peters has made recommendations. Under the proposed rules, all new, small buses would be required to include lap and shoulder seat belts within three years. Those buses are more prone to rollover accidents, she said. Taller seat backs would also be required. However, a requirement for seat belts on larger buses wasn’t endorsed, but, perhaps, encouraged.
It’s hard to consider money when it comes to protecting a child, but it would cost North Carolina $8 million a year if each new bus it buys had to be equipped with seat belts, and far more if the state tried to retrofit existing buses.
We think school officials are correct to take a broad approach and see if there are other ways that $8 million could be spent that would create an even safer situation.