School Bus Seat Belt Debate Renewed After Fatal Crash
While enacting such a mandate might seem straightforward, the data surrounding the issue are not conclusive, which may account for why the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration has held back from issuing formal seat belt requirements for large buses.
According to statistics provided in 2009 by the Transportation Research Board, an average of five children are killed each year while riding school buses, and an additional 5,500 are injured. In terms of overall safety, however, the data show that school buses easily beat out cars.
The NHTSA's own analysis shows that since 1998, just 8 percent of all the 1,564 deaths attributable to accidents involving school buses actually happened to people riding inside one.
"A child in a school bus -- even those that have no seat belts whatsoever -- is still eight times safer than the one that rides to and from school in the family car," Keith Henry, a board member at the National Association of Pupil Transportation, a school bus industry group, told AOL News.
But Dr. Alan Ross, president of the National Coalition for School Bus Safety, argues that conclusions about school bus safety are based on bad information. "The data that industry groups cite on seat belt safety in buses is flawed and outdated," Ross told AOL News. He noted a recent report by the American Academy of Pediatrics that puts the annual number of emergency room visits by children injured on school buses at 17,000.
"Adding seat belts is a no-brainer," Ross said. "But we're letting politics and economics stand in the way of something much more important -- the safety of children."
Currently, only six U.S. states have laws that mandate seat belts in school buses: New York, New Jersey, California, Florida, Texas and Louisiana. In 2007, the NHTSA enacted federal guidelines that require seat belts on small, low to the ground buses weighing 10,000 pounds or less, but the agency has so far declined to act on full-size buses like the ones that crashed today.
"We're really looking for the NHTSA to conduct tests so we can know whether adding seat belts is a positive," Henry said. "But there are a whole host of unintended consequences that should be considered."
Henry cited the fact that installing three-point shoulder harnesses, which have been proven to help prevent a range of injuries that remain associated with simple lap belts, would reduce seating space. As a result, cash-strapped school districts would need to buy more buses, hire more drivers and spend more on gasoline to handle the same number of children.
"These are the things most people don't automatically consider in this debate," Henry said.
Ross takes a different view. "We don't need more tests at this time," he said. "We know seat belts save lives. It's not rocket science."