The school bus crash on Interstate 81 that sent two dozen people to the hospital Sunday raises that nagging question about why school buses lack seat belts.
It’s an emotional and complicated subject, but this is probably true: It has grown less likely schools will equip buses with seat belts or that governments will require them.
That’s because of research that has convinced many people that school buses are the safest mode of transportation, even with children unbuckled.
“I’d rather have my kids, my grandkids, riding in a school bus without seat belts, than riding in someone’s vehicle with seat belts,” says John Allison, a former school superintendent who is safety director for Rohrer Bus Service, based in Duncannon.
Most U.S. school buses don’t have seat belts. Beginning this year, new school buses that are smaller – the kind that seat up to about a dozen children – must have seat belts.
It’s not that anyone is arguing seat belts wouldn’t make a difference.
An Alabama study released last year concluded that seat belts would save the life of about one child every eight years.
The retired University of Alabama professor who led the study said riding in a school bus is six to eight times safer than riding with a parent.
MSNBC.com, which examined the issue in December, reported that about six children die each year in school bus accidents nationwide, while about 800 die while walking, biking or riding to school in other vehicles.
The website cited a study that said school buses are about 40 times safer than the family car.
The Pennsylvania School Bus Association, in a statement on its website, says modern school bus design uses a concept called “compartmentalization” that works very well to protect school bus passengers during a crash.
The concept involves using close seat spacing and high seat backs to prevent passengers from being thrown during a crash, and using padding to cushion any impact.
The association also details several potential problems with seat belts, such as their misuse, which could increase the risk of neck and abdominal injuries, and the possibility that school districts would recoup seat belt costs by reducing the number of bused children, thereby forcing some children into more dangerous situations.
Experts note additional safety advantages of school buses, including their height, their attention-grabbing color and lights, the safety training of drivers and traffic regulations intended to protect them.
Allison spent 35 years in education and was superintendent of Northern York County School District. Since 1998 he has worked for Rohrer, which provides busing for about eight Harrisburg-area school districts.
Allison says the seat belt issue is one he wrestles with.
He’s bothered by the “mixed message” given to children who are lectured on the need to buckle up, yet loaded onto buses that lack belts.
He also believes belts would make it easier for school bus drivers to maintain order and would provide a safety benefit in some rollover crashes.
Yet he also believes seat belts would create an assortment of problems that would offset the benefit.
The problems include the effort it would take to make sure all children were belted properly and the time this would add to the bus ride.
He also stresses that effective use of seat belts would require an educational campaign for staff and students, penalties for students who fail to buckle up and willingness on the part of parents to accept punishments.
The Alabama study cited the cost of seat belts as a negative, saying they cost about $11,000 to $15,000 per bus. The authors argued that the money would be better spent making conditions safer for students as they get on and off school buses.
Allison has no exact figure but estimates adding seat belts would cost $2,000 to $2,500 per bus.
He notes that if a school district wanted belts, Rohrer would provide them, with the cost built into the contract.
But he is aware of no local district ever seriously looking into adding seat belts and says he doesn’t believe the cost of seat belts has been a major deterrent to their use in school buses.
Bud Shaffner, president of the Cumberland Valley School Board, has no strong view on the subject, mainly because he can’t recall it being a major issue during his 14 years on the board.
Shaffner’s biggest worry is that seat belts would be required by the state or federal government. He says he would gladly discuss the subject with anyone who feels strongly about it but would want any policy regarding seat belts to be based on opinions in his district.
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