February 1, 2010 – Last month two accidents involving buses sent four people to the hospital, one of which was a Cherry Creek School Bus. As we all know, most buses do not provide seat belts for our protection. It seems oxymoronic to legally require passengers in cars to wear seat belts, yet not provide this life-saving option to the children of this country on their five day a week, twice daily ride to school. What are we teaching our children anyways? Seat belts are a must when driving with their most trusted role models, yet they can ride with a perfect stranger in a 10,000+ pound vehicle without this protection?
A little background on bus seat belts – thirty-five years ago UCLA engineers designed “compartmentalization” to ensure the safety of bus passengers. This design provided for high-back, well-padded and well-anchored seats capable of absorbing crash forces and allowed for large aisle side panels to contain riders. The engineers also recommended a lap belt for additional and necessary protection. Ten years later, and in response to a Congressional mandate, the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (“NHTSA”) initiated the Federal Motor Vehicle Standard 222, which provided for only some of these proposed features. The proposed standards left out of Standard 222 were the crucial compartmentalizing side panel and lap belt. Additionally, the seat back height increase was eight inches lower than the engineers had recommended. To say the least, these insufficiencies severely compromised passenger protection in side impacts and bus rollovers. However, the NHTSA holds the position that school buses are one of the safest forms of transportation on the road today.
Buses weighing over 10,000 pounds are not legally required to have seat belts. The National Coalition for Seatbelts on School Buses cite the following reasons why they should: (1) reduces the probability of death and severe injuries in accidents; (2) improves passenger behavior thereby reducing driver distractions; (3) protects against injuries in rollover or side impact crashes; (4) reinforces good safety habits; and (5) the nominal cost to install seat belts. However, the NHTSA opposes seat belts on large buses saying they are “not only unnecessary but could also be hazardous.” These are their reasons: (1) seat belts are not helpful in the majority of fatal accidents; (2) more children are killed outside of buses – walking to and from the bus stop - than inside; (3) there is no guarantee that students will use the seat belts; (4) seat belts could be used as weapons to injure other passengers; and (5) money spent in installing seat belts could be better utilized on other safety measures.
I guess it is somewhat comforting to know that out of 23.5 million children who ride buses daily, only an average of 7 bus passengers die each year in accidents. However, I see no reason why seat belts should not be mandatory on all school buses. Can we place a dollar amount on the safety of our children? Without these live saving devices, can we really feel that are children are safe? Are we sending mixed messages to our children about their safety? What do you think?