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For the week of Sept. 8, 1999 through Sept. 14, 1999

School bus purchase could reopen seat-belt debate

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. It’s 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. Shouldn’t 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 buses—the 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 it’s 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 belts.

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 belts—the only seat belts that can be installed in today’s type I school buses—actually increase the chances that passengers will be injured during an accident.

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 and spine.

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 ejected.

"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 district’s 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 together.

"Everybody sort of agrees that lap belts are not the way to go," Squires said. "The majority of students don’t use the belts, and the driver has enough to do just driving the bus without worrying whether a kid has unlatched a buckle."

"Generally," Squires added, "if kids leave [the belts] alone, then it’s 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 technicians.

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 it’s a difficult issue that needs to be approached carefully.

"We don’t 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 didn’t 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, there’s potentially a lot of funding available from local residents.

Whatever the obstacles are to mandating seat belts, it is clearly a complex issue.

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."


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