Debate Over Seat Belts on Buses

On Feb. 4, 2015, H.B. 2582 was introduced in the West Virginia House of Delegates. This bill states, “Beginning July 1, 2015, the state board of education shall install seat belts in school buses over a five-year period, until all school buses are outfitted with seat belts, which seat belts shall meet the standards set and approved by the Society of Automotive Engineers, Inc.” The bill was referred to the House Committee on Education and then the House Committee on Finance. This bill was reintroduced during the 2016 legislative session on Jan. 13 of this year. It was then referred to the House Committee on Education. The head sponsor of the bill is Delegate Nancy Peoples Guthrie, D-Kanawha. Other sponsors of the bill are Delegates Linda Longstreth, D-Marion, Dana Lynch, D-Webster, Larry Rowe, D-Kanawha, Isaac Sponaugle, D-Pendleton, and Andrew Byrd, D-Kanawha. Mark R. Rosekind, the administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Adminstration (NHTSA), talked about seat belts on school buses in a speech he made in November 2015 at the 41st summit of the National Association for Pupil Transportation. “The NHTSA has not always spoken with a clear voice on the issue of seat belts on school buses. So let me clear up any ambiguity now: The position of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is that seat belts save lives. That is true whether in a passenger car or in a big yellow school bus. And saving lives is what we are about. So NHTSA’s policy is that every child on every school bus should have a three-point seat belt. School buses should have seat belts. Period,” Rosekind said. Rosekind also said in his speech that the NHTSA will launch a series of research projects to study the safety benefits of seat belts, and it will contact governors of the states that require seat belts to nominate participants to give recommendations on how to start a nationwide “seat belts on school buses” movement, which will study how to overcome financial difficulties associated with installing seat belts on school buses. The big question in this debate is whether seat belts on school buses will help or hurt students. From 2004 to 2013 there were 340,039 fatal motor vehicle traffic crashes and 0.4 percent, or 1,214, of these were school transportation-related. A total of 1,344 people, or an average of 134 people a year, were killed during this time period nationwide in school transportation-related crashes, according to the NHTSA. Of the people who died, 8 percent were occupants of school transportation vehicles and 71 percent were occupants of other vehicles. California, Florida, Louisiana, New Jersey, New York and Texas are the only states that have some type of seat belt law for school buses, according to the National Conference of State Legislators’ website. The NHTSA has done research about seat belts on school buses. What do officials think in the Marion County area about installing seat belts on school buses? “The school buses themselves, the frame is reinforced steel built for safety purposes,” said Chad Norman, administrative assistant in charge of transportation. “They have found that the cabin that students sit in, with the high seat in front of them and the high seat in back of them, actually prevents major injuries. “In the event that we have a situation, students could exit quickly without being belted in and the driver having to come and actually unbelt each one of the students.” The concern about students being belted in is that in certain situations, like a rollover accident, or a bus entering water, the seat belts “could present a safety issue,” Norman said. Once the NHTSA has conducted its research, “it’ll be interesting to see what their studies show — first determining if it is indeed a need,” Norman said. School buses have other features that offer safety, according to Ron Schmuck, transportation supervisor for Marion County Schools. “The floors of the bus sit high enough and the seating compartment is above where most accidents are happening. An accident would happen under the floor due to the height of the buses. It lessens the impact of any passengers on it,” Schmuck said. Some Marion County bus drivers are also against installing seat belts on buses. “They would be a dangerous weapon,” Roger Stover, a bus driver for 41 years, said, referring to students hitting each other with the seat belts. “If we have to evacuate that bus in a hurry for some ungodly reason, it’s going to present a problem, especially with the little ones. I’m strictly against them,” Stover said. “If a bus would be in an accident that the bus would be on its side or its top, the latch (of the seat belts) isn’t coming off. Now you’re going to have to cut every child loose. Especially if there is a fire on the bus, you couldn’t get them all off,” said Terry Markley, a bus driver for 20 years in Marion County. The NHTSA has done research about seat belts on school buses that concludes there may be some benefit to using lap/shoulder belts. In 2002, the NHTSA presented a report to Congress that concluded that using lap belts has “little, if any, benefit in reducing serious-to-fatal injuries in severe frontal crashes.” “The use of combination lap/shoulder belts, if used properly, could provide some benefit on both large and small school buses. Lap/shoulder belts can be misused if children put the shoulder portion behind them. NHTSA’s testing showed that serious neck injury and perhaps abdominal injury could result when lap/shoulder belts are misused. Assuming 100 percent usage and no misuse, lap/shoulder belts could save one life a year,” the NHTSA said in the report.

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