‘States debate requiring seat belts on school buses” (March 14) raised an emotional issue. Mandating seat belts on buses seems logical, just as for cars. It seems like a no-brainer.
I am a former school bus driver, having spent more than seven years driving 200-plus K-12 kids 100 miles each day. I know firsthand the challenges of transporting our nation’s youth. The article presented a one-sided, emotional view of the seat-belt issue and failed to mention child fatality statistics, which actually show that school bus transportation is the safest mode of transportation possible — or the fact that school buses are specifically designed to be safe without the use of seatbelts.
A large body of research clearly shows mandatory seat belts in school buses is not a good idea and will result in more injuries. Consider:
1. Whether or not a problem exists in the first place is debatable. According to a 2006 report by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, since 1996 there have been only an average of five fatalities annually among students inside a bus. Most school-bus related deaths occur outside the bus (14 per year). Compared to the more than 1,300 fatalities annually of school-age children in other vehicle types during school hours, it is clear the greatest danger to kids is driving themselves or riding with parents or friends.
2. Not mentioned in the article is that all small buses (under 10,000 pounds) are already required by federal law to carry seat belts. That’s because smaller buses are judged to be closer in size to automobiles and light trucks, and the federal government requires a comparable level of occupant protection. Seat belts are not required for large school buses (typically 23,000 pounds or more) for reasons including size, design and placement of the occupants.
3. There is a difference between requiring seat-belt installation and mandating their use. Of the six states that require seat belts (California, Florida, Louisiana, New Jersey, New York and Texas ), only one requires their use (New Jersey).
4. There is also great confusion simply in the term “seat belt.” Most parents incorrectly assume this refers to the three-point harness required in automobiles today. However, the reality is that old-fashioned lap belts are the common belt for large school buses.
5. The 1967 UCLA researcher most often cited by proponents of mandatory seat belts recommended “passenger protection of lap belts when used with high back seats” in school buses. Understand this research was performed 10 years before the 1977 mandate for compartmentalization safety features. More recent testing of this configuration shows that compartmentalization works and is safer than belts.
6. Why are three-point “safety belts unsafe in school buses”? Many people do not realize that these are structurally incompatible with the compartmentalized crash protection design currently in use. While it is an engineering possibility to put three-point safety belts on school buses, the anchoring of the shoulder harness would, of necessity, make the seat back more rigid in order to endure the energy of a crash. In effect, compartmentalization would not be necessary, or advisable, because of some of its energy-absorbing qualities. Therefore the school bus has to have either a three-point safety belt system or compartmentalization. It cannot have both.
This leads directly to the next challenge: compliance of use. The three-point safety belt will only work if everyone is buckled up. If 10 percent of the students in an 84-passenger school bus are unbelted in a severe crash, they become victims of an interior that is not as “occupant-friendly” as compartmentalization. The advantages of compartmentalization have been sacrificed for the unrealistic goal of having 100 percent belt compliance.
7. It’s the driver’s responsibility: It is not feasible for a driver to monitor compliance of up to 84 students. Entering kindergarten, the average boy is 3 feet, 9 inches tall and weighs 47 pounds. The average girl stands 3 feet, 8 inches tall and weighs 46 pounds. Configuring the bus to accommodate harnesses for children of this size makes the belt configuration problematic and reduces the number of older children who can be seated.
For instance, the Safeguard Seat restricts the middle passenger to no more than 70 pounds (the average 9-year-old). Since most fourth- to sixth-grade elementary students will exceed this, the driver will have to sort passengers by size and check to make sure each occupant has his or her belt attached and is wearing it correctly, low around the hip bone to prevent injury.
Once the bus is in motion, there is nothing to prevent the child from unbuckling or loosening the belt. Monitoring this while the bus is in motion would decrease the driver’s ability to safely operate a bus. Additionally, unfastened belts can themselves become a danger.
Whether or not there are lap belts in school buses is the emotional debate, but the real danger is lurking outside the bus. We can have much greater impact if we spend our time, energy and dollars encouraging parents to require their children to ride the school bus. Today’s school buses are 87 times safer for your child than driving your children yourself, letting them ride with friends, or even walking or bicycling.
There are some 440,000 public school buses in the U.S., traveling more than 4.3 billion miles each year, carrying 24 million children — almost always without incident.
George McNulty lives in Robbinsdale.