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Debating the merits of mandatory seat belts on school buses

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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.

Federal regulation

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
 

tom wyss Wyss

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.

seatbeltfacts
Public policy

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.

Statistics

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.•

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  1. Yes diversity is so very important. With justice Rucker off ... the court is too white. Still too male. No Hispanic justice. No LGBT justice. And there are other checkboxes missing as well. This will not do. I say hold the seat until a physically handicapped Black Lesbian of Hispanic heritage and eastern religious creed with bipolar issues can be located. Perhaps an international search, with a preference for third world candidates, is indicated. A non English speaker would surely increase our diversity quotient!!!

  2. First, I want to thank Justice Rucker for his many years of public service, not just at the appellate court level for over 25 years, but also when he served the people of Lake County as a Deputy Prosecutor, City Attorney for Gary, IN, and in private practice in a smaller, highly diverse community with a history of serious economic challenges, ethnic tensions, and recently publicized but apparently long-standing environmental health risks to some of its poorest residents. Congratulations for having the dedication & courage to practice law in areas many in our state might have considered too dangerous or too poor at different points in time. It was also courageous to step into a prominent and highly visible position of public service & respect in the early 1990's, remaining in a position that left you open to state-wide public scrutiny (without any glitches) for over 25 years. Yes, Hoosiers of all backgrounds can take pride in your many years of public service. But people of color who watched your ascent to the highest levels of state government no doubt felt even more as you transcended some real & perhaps some perceived social, economic, academic and professional barriers. You were living proof that, with hard work, dedication & a spirit of public service, a person who shared their same skin tone or came from the same county they grew up in could achieve great success. At the same time, perhaps unknowingly, you helped fellow members of the judiciary, court staff, litigants and the public better understand that differences that are only skin-deep neither define nor limit a person's character, abilities or prospects in life. You also helped others appreciate that people of different races & backgrounds can live and work together peacefully & productively for the greater good of all. Those are truths that didn't have to be written down in court opinions. Anyone paying attention could see that truth lived out every day you devoted to public service. I believe you have been a "trailblazer" in Indiana's legal community and its judiciary. I also embrace your belief that society's needs can be better served when people in positions of governmental power reflect the many complexions of the population that they serve. Whether through greater understanding across the existing racial spectrum or through the removal of some real and some perceived color-based, hope-crushing barriers to life opportunities & success, movement toward a more reflective representation of the population being governed will lead to greater and uninterrupted respect for laws designed to protect all peoples' rights to life, liberty & the pursuit of happiness. Thanks again for a job well-done & for the inevitable positive impact your service has had - and will continue to have - on countless Hoosiers of all backgrounds & colors.

  3. Diversity is important, but with some limitations. For instance, diversity of experience is a great thing that can be very helpful in certain jobs or roles. Diversity of skin color is never important, ever, under any circumstance. To think that skin color changes one single thing about a person is patently racist and offensive. Likewise, diversity of values is useless. Some values are better than others. In the case of a supreme court justice, I actually think diversity is unimportant. The justices are not to impose their own beliefs on rulings, but need to apply the law to the facts in an objective manner.

  4. Have been seeing this wonderful physician for a few years and was one of his patients who told him about what we were being told at CVS. Multiple ones. This was a witch hunt and they shold be ashamed of how patients were treated. Most of all, CVS should be ashamed for what they put this physician through. So thankful he fought back. His office is no "pill mill'. He does drug testing multiple times a year and sees patients a minimum of four times a year.

  5. Brian W, I fear I have not been sufficiently entertaining to bring you back. Here is a real laugh track that just might do it. When one is grabbed by the scruff of his worldview and made to choose between his Confession and his profession ... it is a not a hard choice, given the Confession affects eternity. But then comes the hardship in this world. Imagine how often I hear taunts like yours ... "what, you could not even pass character and fitness after they let you sit and pass their bar exam ... dude, there must really be something wrong with you!" Even one of the Bishop's foremost courtiers said that, when explaining why the RCC refused to stand with me. You want entertaining? How about watching your personal economy crash while you have a wife and five kids to clothe and feed. And you can't because you cannot work, because those demanding you cast off your Confession to be allowed into "their" profession have all the control. And you know that they are wrong, dead wrong, and that even the professional code itself allows your Faithful stand, to wit: "A lawyer may refuse to comply with an obligation imposed by law upon a good faith belief that no valid obligation exists. The provisions of Rule 1.2(d) concerning a good faith challenge to the validity, scope, meaning or application of the law apply to challenges of legal regulation of the practice of law." YET YOU ARE A NONPERSON before the BLE, and will not be heard on your rights or their duties to the law -- you are under tyranny, not law. And so they win in this world, you lose, and you lose even your belief in the rule of law, and demoralization joins poverty, and very troubling thoughts impeaching self worth rush in to fill the void where your career once lived. Thoughts you did not think possible. You find yourself a failure ... in your profession, in your support of your family, in the mirror. And there is little to keep hope alive, because tyranny rules so firmly and none, not the church, not the NGO's, none truly give a damn. Not even a new court, who pay such lip service to justice and ancient role models. You want entertainment? Well if you are on the side of the courtiers running the system that has crushed me, as I suspect you are, then Orwell must be a real riot: "There will be no curiosity, no enjoyment of the process of life. All competing pleasures will be destroyed. But always — do not forget this, Winston — always there will be the intoxication of power, constantly increasing and constantly growing subtler. Always, at every moment, there will be the thrill of victory, the sensation of trampling on an enemy who is helpless. If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face — forever." I never thought they would win, I always thought that at the end of the day the rule of law would prevail. Yes, the rule of man's law. Instead power prevailed, so many rules broken by the system to break me. It took years, but, finally, the end that Dr Bowman predicted is upon me, the end that she advised the BLE to take to break me. Ironically, that is the one thing in her far left of center report that the BLE (after stamping, in red ink, on Jan 22) is uninterested in, as that the BLE and ADA office that used the federal statute as a sword now refuses to even dialogue on her dire prediction as to my fate. "C'est la vie" Entertaining enough for you, status quo defender?

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