School bus purchase could reopen seat-belt debate
By TRAVIS PURSER
Express Staff Writer
This year, as it has done every year since 1994, the Blaine County
School District will purchase three new yellow school buses, each with a myriad of safety
features, but none with seat belts. Its an action that threatens to reopen debate
among city officials over a decades-old controversy.
By law, children are required to wear seat belts in cars.
Shouldnt they also wear them in school buses? That question has spawned studies
nationwide but has yielded no clear answers. The problem has proved just as difficult for
Blaine county to solve.
Fortunately, the safety record for school transportation in the United
States, which has always been good, has steadily improved over the past two decades.
According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, an
average of 11 children are killed inside school buses annually. That number is a more than
200 percent improvement from the 75 school bus fatalities in 1975.
Still, any number of fatalities is too high, and many safety officials,
manufacturers, researchers and advocate groups insist that seat belts are a key factor in
preventing passenger deaths during school bus accidents.
The American Academy of Pediatrics estimates that seat belts on large,
type I school busesthe only buses that are not legally required in all but two
states to have seat belts may reduce deaths and injuries by as much as 20 percent,
assuming that half the passengers actually wear the belts.
The American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons says that seat belts should
be required on all new school buses, arguing that its important to be consistent
when educating children to wear seat belts.
The state of New York, in response to these advocates and others,
passed a law requiring seat belts on school buses in 1989. In 1995, New Jersey passed a
similar law that went one step further by requiring that passengers actually wear the seat
Bills to require seat belts in new school buses have been introduced in
30 states this summer, with Florida and Louisiana passing laws.
Individual school districts in at least five states also routinely put
seat belts on school buses.
Even so, it has been difficult to prove that seat belts are beneficial
to passengers during a school bus crash, and there is even some evidence that lap
beltsthe only seat belts that can be installed in todays type I school
busesactually increase the chances that passengers will be injured during an
The advantage of passengers wearing lap belts is that it prevents them
from being ejected from a bus on impact. However, the 2-inch-wide straps can cut into
internal organs, some researchers and doctors say. Also, by restraining only the lower
part of the body, lap belts allow the torso to fly forward causing injuries to the head
In addition, there has been some concern that passengers restrained
near the area of impact may suffer more severe injuries than if they were not restrained.
Nevertheless, neither NHTSA fatal accident reporting data nor National Transportation
Safety Board investigations have identified any accident in which a school bus fatality
was due to a seat belt-induced injury.
In one investigation of a 1993 accident between a tractor-semi-trailer
and a 20-passenger school bus that was crossing a highway in Oklahoma, the NHTSA concluded
that one child sitting near the area of impact, who was seriously injured, might have been
killed if she had been restrained.
Of the nine passengers on that bus, only one, who suffered minor
injuries, was wearing a lap belt, according to the investigation; the other eight were
"If the unrestrained passengers had been wearing the available lap
belts," the investigation concluded, "none of them would have been ejected:
Prospects for survival might have been better for three of the children who were killed.
Two of the children who survived might have received less serious injuries. For two
children who received minor injuries and one child who was killed, the outcome probably
would have been the same."
Currently, about six of the 20 buses the Blaine County School District
operates daily have lap belts, the districts transportation director, Rex Squires,
said in a telephone interview. The other buses rely on compartmentalization to protect
passengers during a crash. Compartmentalization, which was federally mandated in 1977,
requires all school buses to have well-padded, high-backed seats that are spaced close
"Everybody sort of agrees that lap belts are not the way to
go," Squires said. "The majority of students dont use the belts, and the
driver has enough to do just driving the bus without worrying whether a kid has unlatched
"Generally," Squires added, "if kids leave [the belts]
alone, then its safer."
Squires cited incidences of students swinging the heavy metal buckles
by the straps and bloodying other students.
Despite these drawbacks, there has been a history of qualified lap belt
advocates in Blaine County ranging from pediatricians to Emergency Medical Service
Currently, Lt. Tom McLean of the Ketchum Fire Department is pushing for
Blaine County to mandate seat belts for its school buses. He argues that it is
inconsistent to require kids to wear seat belts in cars but not in school buses, and he
believes that seat belts would save lives.
But McLean also realizes that its a difficult issue that needs to
be approached carefully.
"We dont want to be in a position to embarrass the school
board," he said in a telephone interview.
McLean, and at least one other valley resident, have scheduled a
private meeting tomorrow with Blaine County School District superintendent Jim Lewis,
McLean said, to discuss the issue.
When asked about the meeting, Lewis said he thought it was called to
discuss the lack of paramedics in the valley and how that affects school safety. He said
he didnt know that the issue of seat belts on school buses was part of the agenda.
For McLean, the greatest obstacle to getting seat belts in Blaine
County school buses is that there's a lack of funding to promote the issue. But, McLean
said, theres potentially a lot of funding available from local residents.
Whatever the obstacles are to mandating seat belts, it is clearly a
Recently, Squires attended a school transportation convention, where he
saw passenger restraint prototypes that included rear-facing seats and
roller-coaster-style locking bars.
"The industry is working on developments, and there will
definitely be new things available in the future," Squires said. "Whether buses
have them will be up to the district."