On the morning of March 12, an Indianapolis school bus crashed into a stone bridge abutment, killing the bus driver and a 5-year-old passenger, and injuring several students. Almost immediately, in online forums and on news websites, readers began posting comments, wondering why the law does not require seat belts on school buses and whether seat belts would have made a difference in that crash.
Federal and state law does not require seat belts in school buses over 10,000 pounds. But since October 2009, federal law has required lap and shoulder restraints in new buses under 10,000 pounds – small vehicles made for 10 to 14 students.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reports that in larger buses, the spacing and height of the seats offer crash protection for children through “compartmentalization.” But opinions remain divided about whether compartmentalization does enough to protect students and whether school bus seat belts should be required by law.
A change in federal law since 2009 has required seat backs on buses to be 24 inches high, as opposed to the
previous standard 20 inches. That added height may offer additional protection for students in specific types of crashes by preventing children from being propelled over a seat.
Church Church Hittle & Antrim attorney Andrew Manna said the school corporation clients he contacted said they are not required to retrofit older buses to have 24-inch-high seat backs. And Dr. Marilyn Bull, co-medical director of the Automotive Safety Program at Riley Hospital for Children said buses are simply not built for easy retrofitting.
“The average life span of a bus is 10 to 15 years, so you can’t buy a new bus, but you can’t retire those buses with low seat backs,” she said.
In 2006, Pediatrics, the official journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics, featured a report by Bull and several colleagues that examined the epidemiology of non-fatal school bus-related injuries. It was the first, and most recent, report to study non-fatal school bus injuries.
Bull said that compartmentalization assumes that children always sit facing forward, with their feet on their floor and hands on their laps – an unrealistic scenario on most buses. Furthermore, while compartmentalization may prevent injuries in front- or rear-impact collisions, it offers limited protection in other crashes.
“Compartmentalization is recognized to be incomplete protection for side impact or rollover crashes,” Bull said. Crash tests have shown that three-point restraints – combined lap and shoulder seat belts – are much safer than compartmentalization or lap belts, she said.
Laws slow to change
Sen. Tom Wyss, R-Fort Wayne, chair of the Senate Homeland Security, Transportation and Veterans Affairs Committee, said that the buzz about the need for seat belt laws tends to arise whenever children are injured or killed in a school bus crash.
“Over the years, there’s been a lot of attention that has come up from different situations, and what has always happened is there’s always been resistance by the school corporations on mandating that this be done because of the vast cost that there would be in putting these in,” Wyss said.
And budgetary concerns are not unique to Indiana.
In Ashburn, Va., the Loudoun County School Board this year was considering no longer buying buses with safety belts in order to save money – about $10,000 per each new bus purchase. And Thomas Reed, an at-large Loudoun County school board member, said students simply weren’t using the safety belts.
“At the time that we did it, we expected that we would get compliance from students, and at the time, we expected that we would be in compliance with the federal government,” Reed said.
But the anticipated change in federal law – one that would mandate seat belts on all school buses – never came.
Wyss explained that people may be slow to warm up to ideas that require some significant effort to implement. As an example, he talked about legislation he authored in 2004 that requires children under age 1 to be in a rear-facing car seat and requires children up to age 8 to use a booster seat.
“We never used to think about putting kids in booster seats until we did that legislation, and I still think that’s one of the best things I was ever involved in,” he said. “But we had signs (at the Statehouse) in protest of what I was doing.”
He said he was surprised when parents complained to him about the cost and inconvenience of having to put multiple children in booster seats or about having to transfer booster seats between family cars, depending on who was transporting children.
“The point was not how inconvenient it was for people to do this for their kids, the point is saving their kids’ lives,” he said.
Ron Chew, president of the Indiana State School Bus Drivers Association, said that the organization does not support seat belts on school buses. He said one of the concerns about seat belts is that they may ultimately put children at greater risk in certain situations.
If a school bus were to overturn, he said, rescue might be more difficult if the children are buckled-in.
“There is also the possibility of a fire on the bus, and if the students were in an upside-down position, this would really slow the evacuation process tremendously,” he said. “Also, who is going to monitor the students to make sure they have fastened their belts?”
Bull is familiar with these concerns.
“In terms of egress during emergency, all children over the age of 5 know how to unbuckle their seat belt. Unfortunately, they do it too frequently,” she said. “Evacuating the bus during a fire is a concern always, and it’s something that is practiced twice a year by bus drivers.”
Bull said she’s heard arguments that children will use seat belts as weapons against each other, or that they simply won’t use them – but those issues should be addressed by outreach and education.
“With or without belts, behavior on buses needs to be a component, not only for the child, but for the parents,” she said.
Bull said that children who grow up riding in booster seats, being taught to fasten their seat belts and sit properly in family vehicles may be receiving inconsistent and confusing messages when they ride to school in buses that have no seat belts.
“One of my partners said her 5-year-old came home and asked, ‘How come only the driver gets a seat belt?’” Bull said.
The NHTSA reports that school buses are one of the safest modes of transportation. Bull and Chew agree. But many of the statistics that support the safety of school bus travel look only at the number of school bus fatalities – not injuries – and school bus crash data is flawed for several reasons.
Many national crash datasets cannot adequately be compared, due to lack of consistency in terminology. Furthermore, Bull and her colleagues reported in their research that the Transportation Research Board – which at the time estimated the number of annual school bus related injuries to be 5,500 – accounted only for injuries that occurred between 6 a.m. and 8:59 a.m., and between 2 p.m. and 4:59 p.m., Monday through Friday, from Sept. 1 to mid-June. The research that Bull’s team conducted included injuries that occurred during any month of the year, concluding that the actual number of school bus injuries was about three times what the TRB reported.
Wyss remembers when he introduced legislation that ultimately lowered Indiana’s legal blood alcohol limit to 0.08, drunk-driving fatality statistics tended to persuade people of the value of such legislation. But without understanding the number of injuries, or their severity, people may be unaware of the extent to which crashes can ruin lives.
“People never really understand what ‘injured’ could be,” Wyss said.
Injuries in bus crashes vary by age, with children under age 9 more likely to sustain head injuries during a crash, Bull explained, and older students more likely to sustain injuries to their extremities – some of which are minor.
“We all recognize that for vehicle miles traveled, school buses are the safest vehicles on the road, but if you’re paraplegic or brain-damaged, it’s not minor,” she said.
Wyss anticipates that lawmakers will encounter some public pressure to take a closer look at the seat belt issue in the next legislative session.
“If parents demanded it – you’d have to find a way to do it,” he said.•