School bus seatbelts being debated; money an issue

By Debbie Curtis

CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. — In the wake of the fatal crash in Chattanooga last November, the subject of seatbelts on school buses has once again been thrust into the national spotlight.

Six elementary school students lost their lives that day on their way home from school. The driver of the bus, Johnthony Walker, 24, has been charged with six counts of vehicular homicide and a dozen other related charges.

Despite complaints from parents about Walker’s driving, he was allowed to continue driving a route for the Woodmore Elementary School. On November 21, three days before Thanksgiving, in a 30 mph residential area, he crashed the school bus into a utility pole, which then caused the bus to flip over into a tree.

The impact nearly cut the bus in half. A preliminary report filed in January by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) affirmed that the driver was speeding and lost control. NTSB expects to have a final report of the accident by March 2018.    Currently, seatbelts are not required on school buses in Tennessee or in most states. Only six states require them.

Tennessee responded to the accident by passing House Bill 322, which takes effect in January 2019. The bill raises the minimum age of school bus drivers to 25 and outlines policies and procedures for school districts to handle complaints about drivers. It also requires districts to train drivers in student management.

However, the Tennessee governor and General Assembly opposed a bill that would have required seatbelts in all school buses purchased after July 1, 2019.

Money has always been an issue. Would lawmakers have to find the extra funds to equip the buses, or would it be up to individual school districts? Meanwhile, parents wonder how a price tag could be put on their children’s lives.

Part of the issue is determining which restraints should be required, a two-point system with a lap belt only or a three-point system comprised of a lap/shoulder belt.  Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn., introduced a national bill late last year that would have created federal grants to equip school buses with three-point systems. Because it was filed late in the congressional session it never advanced.

On the flip side, lawmakers hear from veteran school bus drivers who wonder how they would enforce the use of seatbelts. The drivers also claim that the seatbelts can be used as weapons, and contend that they couldn’t get a bus full of children out of their seatbelts in case of a fire, despite having a seatbelt cutter.

They say compartmentalization with high-backed, cushioned bus seats is enough protection during crashes. However, there is growing evidence that compartmentalized seating is not effective.

“In 1999, the NTSB conducted a Bus Crashworthiness Report, which concluded that compartmentalization doesn’t protect passengers in all crash modes, specifically in side-impact crashes and rollovers,” said Kristin Poland, deputy director of the Office of Highway Safety at NTSB.

As a result, the NTSB recommended that the National Highway and Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) develop performance standards for school bus occupant protection that addresses all types of crashes, including severe side-impact crashes and rollovers.

In 2008, NHTSA issued a final rule that developed performance standards, but it didn’t require a specific type of protection for large school buses. Instead, it left it up to states and school districts whether to use enhanced compartmentalization, compartmentalization with lap belts or compartmentalization with lap/shoulder belts.

For smaller buses (under 10,000 pounds), NHTSA did require lap/shoulder belts for all passengers.

Les Sokolowski of the National School Transportation Association (NSTA) said the organization supports allowing local officials to decide if school buses within their jurisdiction should be equipped with three-point seatbelts.

NSTA also believes that an unfunded seatbelt mandate could jeopardize safety by forcing districts to reduce school bus services to pay for seatbelts. That could result in children taking less-safe modes of transportation such as walking, biking or being driven to school by parents, and in teens driving themselves and others to school.

The National Association of State Directors for Pupil Transportation Services issued a February 2014 position paper that supported seatbelts over compartmentalization.

“Compartmentalization alone has limits for protection; lap-shoulder belts enhance protection,” the paper said. “Compartmentalization offers protection in frontal and in rear crashes assuming passengers are properly seated, but offers limited protection in rollovers or side impacts. Passengers restrained by lap-shoulder belts are retained in the seating compartment, thus minimizing injury caused by body impact to surroundings.”

In 2015, then-NHTSA Administrator Mark Rosekind said the association’s policy was that “every child on every school bus should have a three-point seatbelt.”

Despite those recommendations, there is little consistency in laws across states regarding school bus seatbelts. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, only six states require seatbelts on buses: California, New York, New Jersey, Texas, Florida and Louisiana. Of those, only California requires lap/shoulder belts.

Florida began requiring two-point systems in 2001 but provides no financial support to school districts. Louisiana and Texas lack sufficient funding to implement their new seatbelt laws, and Texas allows school districts to opt out due to financial constraints.

And while New York requires lap belts on school buses, it leaves it up to districts whether to enforce their use by students.

Bills that would require seatbelts on school buses are pending in Washington and Kansas.

Opponents of mandated seatbelts say their safety benefits don’t outweigh the cost of installing the belts, especially the more expensive lap/shoulder belt systems.

While most states with legislation don’t require retrofitting buses already in use, installing seatbelts adds thousands of dollars to the cost of each new bus. But new seating technologies can reduce those costs.

BlueBird, for example, recently unveiled its new NextGen seat, which has a seat frame designed to allow the addition of a three-point system without buying and installing new seats.

Just as the motorcoach industry is now required to install seatbelts on all new buses, the school bus industry appears destined to eventually face a nationwide seatbelt mandate. The question, however, is how long that will take and who will pay for it.

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