School bus safety back in the news
The Nov. 18 school bus accident in neighboring Brown County, in which the driver and 22 Hiawatha school district students required treatment at local hospitals after the bus left the roadway and rolled once before coming to a stop, is a reminder that these kinds of accidents can and do happen.
Luckily, in this case, no one received life-threatening injuries.
Most school buses in the United States don't have seat belts or similar restraints to protect children in case of accidents, it has been reported.
Federal law requires them in buses under 10,000 pounds, but that's only a small proportion of the school buses in us. The 6 to 12-seater buses are treated like cars, light trucks and passenger vehicles because of their similar low weight and center of gravity.
But larger buses — like the standard long yellow school bus that makes up about 80 percent of the nation's fleet — weigh in much heavier, and their passengers sit much higher, making them safer in collisions, experts says.
For those, federal education and transportation agencies leave the decision up to the states. And so far, only six states require seat belts to be installed.
You might wonder that if cars have seat belts, why then aren't they generally required in school buses?
The stock school bus industry answer is that modern school buses are already remarkably safe, and because seat belts don't work the same way in buses as they do cars.
Numerous federal and academic studies have concluded that school buses are the safest form of ground transportation of all, in fact. The National Safety Council says they're about 40 times safer than the family car.
About 440,000 public school buses carry 24 million children more than 4.3 billion miles a year, but only about six children die each year in bus accidents, according to annual statistics compiled the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
About 800 children, by contrast, die every year walking, biking or being driven to school in cars or other passenger vehicles, said Ron Medford, the agency's deputy director.
That's because designers of modern school buses don't trust squirmy children to use seat belts properly. Instead, they use a passive system called compartmentalization. Bus seats aren't packed so closely together just to maximize capacity (although that's one reason); they're spaced tightly and covered with 4-inch-thick foam to form a protective bubble.
In a crash, "the child will go against the seat, and that will absorb most of the impact," said John Hamilton, transportation director for the Jackson County, Fla., school board. "Plus, it's a safety device so that they won't be projecting through the air."
Cost and risks of seat belts
are two other main reasons for declining to install seat belts:
*Cost. It would cost $8,000 to $15,000 to the cost of a new bus while having little to no impact on safety.
*Room. Seat belts would also take up room that's now used for seats, meaning "fewer children can be accommodated on each row," according to an Alabama study. That could require school systems to increase their bus fleets by as much as 15 percent just to transport the same number of pupils, it suggested.
*More cost. Seat belts would have to be phased in over a decade at a minimum cost of $117 million per state, it was reported. That cost could be prohibitive, "especially when the nation is dealing with an economic downturn," the study said.
• Safety. Numerous safety agencies say seat belts aren't the best choice for children, which is why nearly all states require container-like full car seats for younger kids in passenger cars.
Some groups, like the National Coalition for School Bus Safety, say the evidence is incomplete and unconvincing, and they argue that skepticism over seat belts is driven by "an economically driven industry."
Many other organizations dedicated to school transportation also oppose mandatory seat belts, including the National Association for Pupil Transportation, the National School Transportation Association and the National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services.
What do you think?