Editorial: Does keeping kids safe on school buses mean seatbelts?

Last week’s school bus crash in Ansonia resulted in three students going to the hospital. The injuries were minor, but whenever students are injured in school bus accidents, the question invariably comes up: Why don’t school buses have seat belts?

It seems a monumental oversight. For years the law has mandated that children riding in a car must be restrained by a seat belt. Belts have been shown to reduce traffic injuries and deaths. So why on earth would we make an exception for vehicles whose sole purpose is transporting children?

Currently, seven states require seat belts in school buses, and a clear majority of parents in the other 43 states say they want them, too. So what’s the problem? Data, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

The NHTSA and the National Education Association have spent considerable effort and money studying the issue, and their conclusion is that seat belts would make school buses less safe.

First, we should point out that school buses already are remarkably safe, with an average of five students per year being killed in bus crashes. That is compared to 800 annual fatalities from riding to school in cars or walking or biking to school. In addition, NHTSA estimates that school buses keep 17 million cars off the road.

Still, even the safest of activities can be safer, so why don’t seat belts work in school buses?

According to NEA research in districts that adopted them, problems included:

• Students using the buckles as weapons, injuring other riders.

• Drivers being unable to ensure that all students have their belts properly fastened.

• Increased time to evacuate a bus in an emergency.

NHTSA has stated that the best way to provide crash protection to passengers is through “compartmentalization,” in which passive systems built into the bus provide protection. Examples include the four inches of padding built into seat backs and the close spacing of bus seats, both of which minimize the impact of a crash. In addition, the bus’s sheer size and the elevated seating position provide extra protection.

One thing NHTSA says could help reduce bus crashes is better monitoring of students. In recent years there has been much concern about disciplinary problems in classrooms. Consider that a bus driver has to deal with as many as twice as many students as a teacher, while operating a large vehicle in traffic, with his or her back to the students.

Support for bus drivers from school officials and parents would benefit school bus safety, as would a little patience on the part of drivers stuck behind buses making their pickups and drop-offs.

Of course, none of these factors would have helped in this week’s Ansonia crash, where the bus was stopped when it was rear-ended by a van on a wet, slippery road. But it is worth considering that sometimes the obvious solution is not the most effective.