Deadly school bus crash prompts reexamination of seat belt policies

File Photo shows school buses lined up outside Crimson Point Elementary in Kuna, Idaho. (Photo courtesy of KBOI 2News)

Only one day before Woodmore Elementary School let kids out for Thanksgiving break, a bus carrying 35 students crashed into a tree in Chattanooga, Tenn. killing five children and injuring two dozen others.

Overnight, police took the bus driver, Johnthony Walker into custody, charging him with five counts of vehicular homicide as well as reckless driving and reckless endangerment. Chattanooga Police Chief Fred Fletcher described the incident as "every public safety professional's worst nightmare."

In the aftermath of the tragic crash, concerns over children's safety are front and center, along with the question of whether seat belts should be required on school buses.

National Safety Council President Deborah Hersman said on Tuesday that safety standards for school buses need to be updated nationwide to include three-point seat belts, a similar design to car seat belts. Only California, Florida, Louisiana, New Jersey, New York, and Texas have statewide requirements for safety belts on school buses. A number of states and school districts don't require belts because of the cost, which can reach a couple thousand dollars to install. For cash-strapped school districts, the decision can boil down to a choice between the number of buses servicing students or upgraded safety belts.

Ultimately, the National Safety Council strongly advocates having school children strapped in on the bus. "On all newly manufactured school buses, we ought to have three-point belts. That is the best protection we can give our kids," Hersman said.

This view in support of lap and shoulder belts on school buses has also been echoed by the National Safety Council and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). In 2015, NHTSA administrator Mark Rosekind made waves in the transportation safety community when he issued a forceful recommendation that “school buses should have seat belts. Period.”

Charlie Vits, with the seat belt manufacturer IMMI/Safeguard, also strongly supported outfitting all school bus fleets with the newer model of shoulder-restrain seat belts. He explained that it is hard to say whether the fatalities in the Tennessee crash this week could have been avoided if the students were wearing their seat belts.

"We do know that historically, in any vehicle application where lap-shoulder belts have been installed, death and fatalities and injury are reduced by approximately 45 per cent," he said.

However, in the Chattanooga crash, the bus rolled. The standard safety design of the school bus, which keeps kids in their seating compartments in case of a head-on collision, did "absolutely nothing" to protect the passengers, Nits said.

Despite the evidence and wide-ranging support for school bus restraints, there is still no mandate on their use, and according to the National Education Association (NEA), they should not be required.

When the NEA interviewed school bus drivers, they raised a number of concerns associated with the use of safety belts. Among their worries were that the older design of heavy belt buckles could be used as weapons. The bus drivers further argued that it is not possible for drivers to ensure all students keep their belts fastened, and in the event a bus has to be evacuated in an emergency, panicked students could be trapped in their seat belts.

"Much of those three reasons, there are part of a misinformation that existed based on old technology," Vits stated. School districts vary in their policies, but a number of districts that have lap-shoulder belts on buses and require kids to buckle up have claimed between 90 to 100 per cent usage, he added.

With or without seat belts, transportation safety agencies have concluded that school buses remain the safest way to get to school, as much as eight times safer than riding in a parent's car.

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