Seat belts on buses?
Students board a bus at Morgan City High School Thursday afternoon. Louisiana has had a law on the books since 1999 calling for seat belt availability on large school buses, but only if money can be allocated toward that purpose. It is one of only six states to have any sort of law governing seat belts on buses.
(The Daily Review Photo by Jean L. McCorkle)
Whether or not to install seat belts in large school buses has been debated for more than a quarter of a century.
While Louisiana has had legislation in effect since 1999 requiring occupant restraint systems in school buses, it is one of only six states and the law is subject to the appropriation of funds. So, if money is never allocated for the purpose, state law does not require seat belt availability for students.
In St. Mary Parish, an average of 10 school bus accidents occurs annually, according to Chief Financial Officer Alton Perry of the St. Mary Parish School System.
“Most of these accidents are simple fender-bender type claims. Many of them involve driver-owned buses in which their insurance covers the loss, while some involve our buses that we own. Also, it should be noted that many of these accidents are not our fault,” Perry said.
The St. Mary and Lafayette parish transportation directors did not return requests for comment on this story.
Compartmentalization, a passive occupant protection system, is the heart of the federal government’s policy of school bus safety. The concept envisions students riding in an energy-absorbing metaphorical egg carton.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which commented via email without naming a specific spokesman, said, “U.S. school buses are required to meet more stringent safety standards than any other type of bus or motor vehicle. They are required to provide crash protection through closely spaced seats with high seat backs that are well padded and uniquely designed to absorb energy when a passenger impacts the seat during a crash. This is commonly known as ‘compartmentalization,’ as it provides crash protection by cushioning and containing the passengers within their seating positions. Lap/shoulder belts are required on small school buses (weighing less than 10,000 pounds) because these buses are closer to the size and weight of light passenger vehicles and experience greater crash forces in collisions than large school buses.”
While not fatal to anyone on the school bus, the Feb. 15 accident in Centerville between a bus carrying a Lafayette Parish baseball team and a Kia Sorento caused injury to 30 of 35 bus occupants, including 16 concussions in baseball players. The preliminary report by the National Transportation Safety Board indicated the initial impact between the two vehicles was between the left front of the Kia and the right front of the school bus.
Four people in the Kia were killed and one injured. State police said the four killed were not restrained.
According to an NHTSA study, between 2003 and 2012, there were 89 crashes in which at least one occupant of a school transportation vehicle died. More than half of those crashes (58 percent) involved at least one other vehicle. Impacts to the front of the school transportation vehicle occurred in 49 percent and impacts to the right side of the school transportation vehicle occurred in 15 percent of fatal school-transportation-related crashes.
Investigators are developing factual reports on the Centerville accident, which will be made available when the docket is opened. That likely will be 6 to 9 months following the accident, according to Peter Knudson, public affairs officer for NTSB.
NTSB’s most recent recommendations for school bus safety are the result of a Feb. 16, 2012, fatal accident involving a school bus in Chesterfield, N.J. They include:
— A recommendation for the states having seat belt laws in place to develop a handout for school districts to distribute annually to students and parents about the importance of the proper use of all types of passenger seat belts on school buses, including the potential harm of not wearing or adjusting it properly as well as training procedures for schools to follow during the twice yearly emergency drills to show students how to wear their seat belts properly.
—A recommendations for bus manufacturers to develop a recommended practice for establishing and safeguarding the structural integrity of the entire school bus seating and restraint system, including the seat pan attachment to the seat frame, in severe crashes. In particular, those involving lateral impacts with vehicles of large mass.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration email reported an evaluation of school transportation statistics showed that children are safer on school buses than they are walking to school, riding their bikes, or even riding in the family car.
“The decision to equip large school buses with seat belts falls under the purview of each state or local jurisdiction, which are best attuned to their needs and individual budgets,” the agency said via email.