Connecticut Teen’s Death Revives Bus Seat Belt Debate

January 13, 2010

For more than a decade, Connecticut lawmakers have considered and dismissed the idea of requiring seat belts on school buses that carry nearly 500,000 children each day.

But a deadly weekend crash in Hartford has given the argument a human face _ that of earnest, ambitious 16-year-old Vikas Parikh _ and advocates say new seat belt technology could answer many of the concerns that stalled the seat belt idea in previous years.

Parikh, a student at Rocky Hill High and the Greater Hartford Academy of Math and Science, was killed Saturday when his school bus collided with a car on Interstate 84 and plummeted 20 feet down an embankment. More than a dozen other people were injured. The bus was heading to a robotics competition in Farmington.

On Monday, state Rep. Antonio Guerrera, D-Rocky Hill, submitted legislation to require school districts’ new buses to have seat belts and, possibly, to retrofit their fleets. The General Assembly will consider the bill after the 2010 session convenes Feb. 3.

“In my opinion, if it comes down to saving one life, it’s worth it,” said Guerrera, co-chairman of the legislature’s transportation committee.

The committee has debated the seat belt issue several times since 1989, most recently in March 2006. But its members have never endorsed the idea for the full General Assembly’s vote, unsure about the cost ramifications and the conflicting testimony they heard about whether seat belts on buses could do more harm than good.

The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration has said lap belts could cause children to bend at the hips during a crash, causing injuries to their heads, necks and abdomens.

School bus seats are high, closely spaced and padded to keep children “compartmentalized,” meaning they may be severely jostled during a bad crash but the seats, which are slightly flexible, absorb much of the force.

But the NHTSA says harness-style, three-point belts also could have some benefits on school buses if used properly.

Guerrera said he hopes Connecticut lawmakers can hear more about those restraint systems, rather than being derailed by old discussions centering solely on lap belts.

“Technology has come a long way so we don’t know what newest systems would entail. We need to look at all of those, bring the conversation back to the table and make some decisions,” he said.

Lap seat belts have been required since 1977 in small school buses, which are lower to the ground than large buses and, therefore, make passengers more vulnerable in a crash.

The transportation safety agency upgraded those rules last year, requiring three-point seat belts in the smaller buses. The change, which came after four students died in a 2006 crash in Alabama, also requires seat backs on all new buses to be raised to 24 inches, up from 20 inches.

But seat belts are not required on larger buses, which amount to about 80 percent of the roughly 482,000 school buses on the road nationwide.

The National Conference of State Legislatures says California, Florida, Louisiana, New Jersey, New York and Texas require seat belts on large school buses. But the Louisiana and Texas laws are in limbo until financial concerns are resolved.

Grief counselors visited Parikh’s school Monday to talk with students and teachers. His funeral was scheduled for Tuesday in Windsor.

The car that collided with the school bus was driven by a 16-year-old Glastonbury boy. No charges have been filed and police have not said who they believe was at fault in the crash. It remained under investigation Monday.

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