Fifth grader Naomi Goodloe, 11, gets ready for a 22-mil... Fifth grader Naomi Goodloe, 11, gets ready for a 22-mile bus ride to school from her Northwoods, Mo., neighborhood. Approximately 20 percent of school buses are equipped with seats belts. (AP photo).
Seat belts save lives. Using one is "the single most effective way" drivers can prevent death in a car accident, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the government agency charged with keeping motorists out of harm's way.

Yet when 26 million American children return to their classrooms aboard school buses over the next few weeks, chances are they'll be heading to school unbelted.

Only about 20 percent of the nation's 480,000 school buses have seat belts available, and only six states –- New York, New Jersey, California, Texas, Louisiana and Florida -– have laws that begin to address seat belts on school buses.

NHTSA and school bus industry associations say, even without belts, school bus travel is statistically safer than any other form of ground transportation. On the other hand, the National Transportation Safety Board -- a separate government entity -- and safety advocates say more can be done to protect children.

"A child takes their first ride home from the hospital in a restraint, and then is in a seat belt," said Art Yeager, a long-time school bus safety advocate who has testified before Congress on the subject. "The first ride they ever take in a motor vehicle unrestrained is in a school bus, and that doesn't make sense."

Last month, the NTSB issued findings from a first-of-its-kind study of two fatal school bus accidents that safety advocates hope lead to strengthened mandates. Among the conclusions released by investigators:
  • Lap belts can provide a benefit to passengers who wear them properly.
  • The lack of upper body restraint and loss of seating system integrity resulted in a fatal injury in the Port St. Lucie crash.
  • In severe side-impact crashes, properly worn lap and shoulder belts reduce injury related to upper body flailing commonly seen with lap belts only and, therefore, provide the best protection for school bus passengers.
  • Although school buses are extremely safe, properly worn passenger seat belts make the school bus safer, especially in severe side impacts and rollovers.
For those raised wearing seat belts, some of these sound like common-sense conclusions. But they counter four decades' worth of NHTSA's research and positions.

Fatal Bus Accidents

On February 16, 2012, a school bus transporting 25 students to an elementary school in Chesterfield, N.J., pulled away from a stop sign and into the path of a dump truck along Burlington County Road 528. Isabelle Tezsla, 11, was killed in the ensuing collision. Her two sisters -– the three were triplets -– were among five students seriously injured. Ten students sustained minor injuries and nine were uninjured.

A little more than a month later, on the afternoon of March 26, 2012, a school bus failed to yield to a tractor trailer with a full load of sod at an intersection in Port St. Lucie, Fla., while transporting 30 students home from school. Aaron Beauchamp, 9, was killed in the crash.

The NTSB does not make habit of investigating single-fatality road accidents. But these two crashes gave the board a rare opportunity to examine the role of seat belts in school bus safety.

Florida and New Jersey are two of the six states that have seat belt laws. On each bus, some children used the available seat belts and some did not. On the Florida bus, four video cameras captured footage of the accident and aftermath. Both were side-impact crashes.

Doctors from the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia and University of Virginia used the video to produce a frame-by-frame analysis for each of the 31 students on board and mapped what happened to their bodies.

They also knew which students wore seat belts and which did not.

"It was very clear the more severely injured students had been unrestrained," said Dr. Mark Zonfrillo, one of the doctors from the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia who prepared the analysis for the NTSB. "And had had there been more unrestrained, they would have suffered more serious injuries."

Buses Are Safe, NHTSA Says

School buses provide the safest form of ground transportation in the country, according to NHTSA.

On average, about six children die per year in school bus accidents. Buses account for just 0.2 deaths per 100 million vehicle miles traveled, compared with the 1.44 fatality rate per 100 million vehicle miles traveled for regular cars and trucks.

And buses are far safer than cars. For novice drivers, students are 50 times more likely to arrive at school alive if they take a school bus instead of driving with teen friends or by driving themselves. Buses are even safer than when mom and dad are driving: Kids are 20 times more likely to arrive alive than if they're driven by a parent, according to Blue Bird Corp., one of the nation's largest school bus manufacturers.

The National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services say these numbers are an achievement, and attribute them to compartmentalization, a safety design that specifies the precise spacing between seats and the height of seat backs. It keeps kids from being thrown about the bus, but is only designed to be truly effective in a frontal crash.

"Compartmentalization has really worked," said Bob Riley, executive director of NASDPTS. "The statistics are overwhelming."

Yeager, the bus safety advocate, is skeptical. He says school bus travel is more dangerous than those statistics portray. School buses operate approximately 180 days per year, they don't operate in the wee hours of the morning, statistically the most dangerous times for a fatal wreck, and they don't operate in July and August, traditionally the most dangerous months for vehicle travel. So he views it as an apples-to-oranges comparison.

And the NTSB seems to agree. In its conclusions on the Chesterfield crash, the NTSB said, "School buses with compartmentalization alone or lap belts are at risk."

The NTSB merely makes recommendations and has no power to issue regulations. Only NHTSA has that power. But in 2002, NHTSA released a study that praised compartmentalization and concluded that lap belts did not improve protection for school-bus occupants in frontal crashes. This study has formed the basis of opposing seat belts for more than a decade. NHTSA has cited it in rejecting seat-belt rules in both 2007 and 2011.

Many industry groups have used the 2002 study to argue against the added expense of seat belts. Depending on the size, a typical new school bus costs in the vicinity of $75,000 to $85,000. Outfitting a single bus with seat belts can cost anywhere from $5,485 to $7,346, according to NHTSA, based on the number of seats and whether a lap belt or shoulder-and-lap belt is ordered.

Should seat belts ever be required, student transportation director Riley fears such a mandate could have an unintended consequence.

If school districts cannot afford more expensive buses, he says, they'll buy fewer buses and cut services. Students forced to find alternate transportation to school could find themselves in higher-risk modes of travel, like mom and dad's car, ultimately increasing the number of student traffic fatalities.

NHTSA agrees. In August 2011, it denied a petition filed by several safety organizations that would have mandated the installation of shoulder and lap belts in all newly manufactured school buses. In its rejection, NHTSA cited those unintended consequences as one reason. It cited the 2002 study as another.

But the 2002 study is limited in scope – it only analyzed lap belts, not shoulder-and-lap belts, and the findings only pertained to frontal crashes. "Side-impact crashes cause more injuries and death," said Zonfrillo, from the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. "They're far less common. But they're more dangerous."

Dollars And Sense

Protecting our country's most precious cargo comes down to money.

In 2007, NASDPTS opposed a federal rule requiring lap belts based on the 2002 study, and remained neutral on shoulder-and-lap belts because the government could not fund the added expenses. "We were supportive of the lap and shoulder belts, as long as commensurate funding was provided," Riley said.

Even in states with seat-belt laws for school buses already on the books, money matters. New York's law allows for school districts to opt into participation; only 50 of 850 districts have done so, according to Yeager. In Texas, the seat-belt law is contingent upon the state allocating the necessary funds.

"I'm a proponent of seat belts on school buses and a proponent that they're used properly," Riley said. "Our one caveat as an organization is that we don't want any kids losing their opportunity to ride."

Federal law mandated the inclusion of seat belts on passenger cars and light trucks in 1968. Forty-nine states have laws mandating their use. In 2013, NHTSA spent $13.7 million on its familiar "Click It Or Ticket" advertising campaign, which reminds motorists to buckle up or face fines.

Seat-belt use has been rising in the United States. Eighty-five percent of Americans wear them, according to a 2011 Centers For Disease Control study, as do 88 percent of children. "I hear that study come around every year around Memorial Day," Yeager said. "I tease them and say, 'You didn't check the school buses, did you?'"

Pete Bigelow is an associate editor at AOL Autos. He can be reached via email at peter.bigelow@teamaol.com and followed on Twitter @PeterCBigelow.

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