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Debating bus belts

Children today are protected by rearward-facing seats, boosters and belts when they ride in vehicles beginning with their first ride home from the hospital.  Given this indoctrination to safety, kids must perceive a mixed message when they find no belts on their school bus.

The notion of seat belts on school buses has been a topic of debate for many years, but for now only six states — New York, California, Florida, New Jersey, Louisiana and most recently, Texas — have laws requiring them.

Starting this month, Texas school districts in the market for new school buses must ensure that they have shoulder-to-lap seat belts for all riders.  The three-point seat belt law replaces a 2007 law that offered money to districts that opted to install seat belts in their school buses. Few districts took advantage of the funding, leaving most Texas school buses belt-less.

The new law and its 2007 predecessor were both spurred in part by tragic accidents.  In 2015, a school bus in Houston plunged from an overpass, killing two students, Janecia Chatman and Mariya Johnson.  Neither of them were wearing shoulder-to-lap seat belts. The accident occurred in the state Senate district of Sen. Sylvia Garcia, D-Houston, the author of the new law.  After the wreck, anguished family members said they believed seat belts might have prevented the teens’ deaths, and a state trooper who investigated the crash agreed.

So questions for debate arise.  Would belts save lives?  How much will they cost?  Will riders comply?

Last fall, five children lost their lives in Chattanooga, Tennessee when the school bus they were riding in smashed into a tree.  Mourning parents of those children undoubtedly feel that no cost of belt installation would be prohibitive when it comes to saving a child’s life.

 Some experts say that buses are already considered to be safe and that adding seat belts is too costly.  Although nearly 500 children and teens die each year in car accidents during school travel hours, only about four are killed while riding school buses during those same hours, according to a 2014 report from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

The average incremental cost of equipping a large school bus with seat belts would be between $7,346 and $10,296, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimated at a public meeting last year. 

Nevertheless, the American Academy of Pediatrics has long recommended that passenger seat belts be installed on newly manufactured school buses.  The National Safety Council also has made similar recommendations, said Deborah Hersman, its president and CEO, stating, “That's the best protection that we can give our kids.  It’s what they’re used to in cars.  We know that there are very few fatalities involving children on school buses every year — they are a safe form of transportation — but anything that we can do to make them safer is really our responsibility.”

Getting 50-70 kids to buckle up will add a nightmarish task for the driver, and questions remain as to what kind of liability a district would incur if a student was not wearing his or her seat belt on a school bus equipped with them.  Still, the NHTSA argues that the addition of three-point seat belts could help make school buses even safer, reducing the average number of lives lost annually in school bus crashes from four to two.  What are those two lives worth?

Readers may contact Bill Love via e-mail at precisiondriving@spokesman.com.




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