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In Response: Kids safer on school buses -- especially when there are no seat belts

A News Tribune editorial on Feb. 26 touched on the emotional issue of whether school buses should be required to employ seat belts. But it ignored the large body of research that clearly shows mandatory seat belts on school buses is not a good id...

A News Tribune editorial on Feb. 26 touched on the emotional issue of whether school buses should be required to employ seat belts. But it ignored the large body of research that clearly shows mandatory seat belts on school buses is not a good idea and actually would result in more injuries.

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George McNulty

Whether a problem even exists is debatable. A 2006 report by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration stated that, since 1996, only five fatalities of students happened annually inside of buses. Most school bus-related fatalities occur outside of buses; there are 14 of those per year.

All small buses (those under 10,000 pounds) already are required by federal law to carry seat belts. That's because smaller buses are judged to be closer in size to automobiles and light trucks, and the federal government requires a level of occupant protection similar to what's required for automobiles and light trucks.

Requiring the installation of seat belts on buses would not mandate their use. Of the six states that require seat belts on buses, only one requires them to be used.

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Most parents incorrectly assume "seat belt" refers to the three-point harness safety belt found in modern automobiles. However, "seat belt" refers to the old-fashioned lap belts that provide minimum protection.

Three-point safety belts actually are unsafe on school buses as they are structurally incompatible with the compartmentalized crash protection design currently in use. While it is an engineering possibility to put three-point safety belts on school buses, the anchoring of the shoulder harness would, of necessity, make the seat back more rigid to endure the energy of a crash. In effect, compartmentalization would not be advisable because of its energy-absorbing qualities. The school bus must have either a three-point safety belt system or compartmentalization. It cannot have both.

Testing shows that compartmentalization works on buses and is safer than seat or safety belts. A 1985 study by the Council on Road Trauma of Hamilton, Ontario; a 1989 National Academy of Sciences study; a 1999 National Transportation Safety Board study; and a 2002 National Highway Traffic Safety Administration all concluded that the installation of lap belts or lap-and-shoulder belts likely would produce no improvements in passenger crash protection and may even increase serious injuries and fatalities.

The three-point safety belt will work only if everyone is buckled up. If 10 percent of the students are unbelted in a severe crash, they become victims of an interior that is not as occupant-friendly as it would be with compartmentalization. The advantages of compartmentalization would be sacrificed for the unrealistic goal of having 100 percent compliance.

Further, placing responsibility on the driver to ensure everyone is buckled up is not realistic or safe. It simply is not feasible for a driver to monitor compliance of up to 90 students once the bus is in motion. Monitoring this would decrease the driver's ability to safely operate the bus. Additionally, unfastened belts can themselves become a danger.

Kids come in different sizes. At the start of kindergarten, the average boy is 3-foot-9 and the average girl is 3-foot-8. Since most fourth- through 12th-grade students are taller, the bus would need different configurations, and the driver would have to sort passengers by size. A bus used for early-morning elementary routes could not easily be used for later junior-high and senior-high routes.

Whether there are lap belts in school buses is the emotional debate. But the real danger is lurking outside the bus. We can have a much greater impact if we spend our time, energy, and dollars encouraging parents to require their children to ride the school bus. Today's school buses are 87 times safer for your child than driving them yourself, letting them ride with friends, or even walking or bicycling. 

George F. McNulty of Minneapolis is a technology and health care executive who drove a school bus while a student at the University of Minnesota Duluth.

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