It should not come as a surprise to most that a fatal crash last week in eastern Missouri involving two school buses has resulted in murmurs across the state that seat belts are long overdue, despite the fact that seat belts likely wouldn't have made a difference. But, as is said over and over, perception is reality.
Several times over the years, legislators, parents and other child safety advocacy groups have called for the occupant restraints to be equipped in the state’s fleet of 12,276 vehicles that transport 527,169 kids to and from school each day. But all attempts have so far failed.
Of course, as one newspaper pointed out today, school districts all across Missouri (and the nation) can choose to have either two-point lap belts or three-point lap/shoulder belts in school buses even if their states do not yet have a law requiring them. Beginning next fall, NHTSA will require smaller Type A school buses to have the lap/shoulder variety while enforcing guidelines for vehicle manufacturers, seat restraint manufacturers and school bus operators to follow when voluntarily installing the three-point belts. The thinking is that larger school buses afford increased protection during crashes than what smaller buses can offer. It comes down to crash dynamics.
A recent "First Take" column I wrote for our July magazine issue ruffled some feathers, especially those in school bus seat manufacturing circles, when I asked the rhetorical question, “What is the cost of saving one life?” My intent was to further discussion on current events in Connecticut and Ohio as those states grapple with the issue after their own high-profile crashes over the past year. In retrospect, I readily admit that there were a few bases I failed to touch.
For example, I didn’t adequately frame the issue with the strong contention that the seating capacity issue has been resolved via flex-seat options available on today’s market. Also, while yet unproven, there is much anecdotal evidence from many school districts that have voluntarily installed three-point seat belts that the occupant restraints also seem to improve onboard student behavior. Such is the case in Beamont (Texas) ISD, which made the decision to equip its school buses with the lap/shoulders after an activity bus (see motorcoach) crash killed two members of a high school softball team several years ago.
The Missouri crash last week also occurred during an activity trip but on a yellow school bus. While the National Transportation Safety Board is assisting the Missouri Highway Patrol with the crash investigation, early indicators are that distracted driving and possible road construction zones are the main issues being looked at and not school bus seat belts, especially since the death of 15-year-old Jessica Brinker was likely one of those that, by nature, couldn’t have been avoided regardless if seat belts were available or not.
But, as of now, only California requires the seat belts similar to those mandated by the feds in passenger vehicles since the mid-1980s. Texas also has a three-point school bus seat belt law, but the state is still trying to determine if it has the money schools it will need to comply with the law, which is supposed to go into effect next month. Then there is Florida, Louisiana, New Jersey and New York, which have required two-point lap belts in school buses for more than 20 years, though students aren’t required to wear them.
With all this said, parents overwhelmingly want the same protection afforded to their children in Mom’s and Dad’s car as on the school bus. It cannot be overlooked that, regardless of the school bus safety record, perception is reality for parents when it comes to their children’s safety, especially when those young lives are entrusted in someone else’s care.
Coming full circle, it all comes down to funding; it’s something surely on the mind of the American School Bus Council this week as it meets in Chicago. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has pledged to use $5 million of existing NHTSA funding to roll out a national public awareness campaign that espouses the safety and environmental benefits of school buses. That’s all well and good, but it remains to be seen if $5 million divvied up between some 480,000 school buses in service throughout all 50 states will accomplish anything when it comes to the challenges of having or not having school bus seat belts.
As one pupil transporter said during a general session on the topic last month at the STN EXPO, one day all school buses will likely be equipped with seat belts, albeit several decades from now. But in the meantime, what can a unified industry do to stay in front of the issue and advocate the absolute safest school bus rides for the nation’s children, keeping in mind that seat belts, or at least the desire of parents for school buses to be equipped with them, are likely here to stay?