LOUISVILLE, KY (WAVE) - The roll over crash of JCPS bus 1250 has re-ignited the decades old debate over whether school buses should have seat belts. It's an emotionally charged issue involving budgets, safety, and debates over how effective they would be. Putting seat belts on school buses would be extremely expensive. Whether that investment would make students safer is not as clear.
The first pictures from the scene made us cringe and now some parents want to know if at least some of the injuries from rollover school bus accident could have been prevented, by seat belts.
"They even make the brand new buses without seat belts," said Brandy Smith, whose daughter suffered cuts in the crash. "Why is that?"
JCPS chief operations officer Dr. Michael Raisor said school buses are big enough to protect students without seat belts using a process called "compartmentalization" which uses padded seats in front and behind students that create a cushioned cocoon during impact.
But "compartmentalization" can't stop students from being violently tossed a during a rollover crash, documented in a report from the National Transportation Safety Board.
"Seat belts make any motor vehicle safer," said Ben Kelley, board member from the Center for Auto Safety. "That's why we've had them in almost every other passenger vehicle for 20 years. And its a bizarre anomaly that we don't have them in school buses."
The Center for Auto Safety, the National Coalition for School Bus Safety, and the American Academy for Pediatrics have all called on the government to require seat belts on school buses. But in 2011 year the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration rejected a petition for a federal mandate despite NHTSA's own 2002 report to congress that stated seat belts have the potential to reduce fatalities and injuries in rollover school bus crashes.
That report put the cost to equip new school buses with seat belts at 120 to 150 million dollars. It would will take hundreds of millions more to retrofit older buses. NHTSA says the states should be allowed to decide if they can afford that. Six states have now passed laws requiring seat belts on school buses but Kentucky and Indiana are not among them.
"The answer from a safety standpoint is to mandate them for new school buses, the ones that are built from today on, and to do everything possible to encourage states to follow the pattern for adopting them for existing school buses," Kelley said.
Kelley said the best model for that is the state of California, one of the six states that require seat belts on school buses. The others are Florida, Louisiana, New Jersey, New York, and Texas-require seat belts on school buses. In addition, the University of Alabama is completing a study assessing the impact of installing seat belts on a limited number of school buses in that state.
The program in California "has worked wonderfully," Kelley said. "One of the great side benefits has been that parents who wouldn't put their kids on school buses because they didn't have belts, now will put them on. Meaning the kids are less exposed to car crashes than they would have been otherwise."
Lisa Gross, communications director with the Kentucky Department of Education, said cost is only one of the reasons it doesn't support seat belts on school buses. Evacuation after a crash could be more difficult, Gross said, if elementary school students panic and can't unbuckle themselves.
Dr. Raisor said the research on how big a difference seat belts really make on school buses is inconclusive and the absence of severe injuries onboard JCPS bus 1250 is evidence.
"If you look at the accident we had on Friday and you look at the pictures from the scene and you look at what happened," Raisor said, "I think that's a real testament there to the safety of the school buses we have today."
Serious injury or deaths in school bus accidents are rare but they do happen. But the NHTSA says school buses are still one of the safest forms of transportation and the majority of deaths happen getting on and off the bus not while students are in their seats.
Smaller school buses, under 10,000 lbs, are required by federal law to have shoulder-lap restraint belts, because safety experts say those buses more closely mimic regular vehicles during a crash.
Wednesday, June 19 2013 1:06 PM EDT2013-06-19 17:06:50 GMT
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