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September 01, 2008  |   Comments (0)   |   Post a comment

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Straight Talk on Seat Belts, Fuel Costs

The NAPT Board of Directors met recently and discussed two of the most pressing issues facing our industry: safety belts and fuel costs. The following is excerpts of a new white paper that the board approved for distribution to NAPT members. To view the entire document, go to www.napt.org and click on “Industry News: NHTSA Rulemaking.”

In June, the Bush administration announced that any federal rulemaking must be finalized by Nov. 1 or left for the next administration. At the Southeastern States Pupil Transportation Conference in Atlanta in July, a National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) representative reported that the agency’s final decision on school bus occupant protection would be among those held over.

The reason for the delay is an important and necessary one: NHTSA will conduct crash tests of school bus seats equipped with lap-shoulder belts. It appears that NHTSA is making an attempt to do what NAPT asked it to do: put science into the mix before deciding whether to require lap-shoulder belts on large buses. We have called on them again to conduct a full range of dynamic tests to demonstrate any safety benefit and to ensure that there are no unexpected side effects. (Remember, air bags were originally installed with much fanfare, only to find afterwards that they could cause fatal injuries to children and small adults.)

Since the late 1970s, we have been explaining and defending NHTSA’s determination that compartmentalization is the best approach to student passenger crash protection. But in the aftermath of the horrific crash that killed four children in Huntsville, Ala., in November 2006, NAPT decided to formally petition NHTSA, requesting that it engage in the public discussion and resolve once and for all the long-simmering debate of whether safety belts would be beneficial in large school buses. NHTSA’s response, based on minimal research, stated that safety belts in large buses are a “best practice” and that a lap-shoulder belt system, together with compartmentalization, would provide “optimum” safety benefits. Yet the agency did not propose a federal requirement for their installation.

When the government says safety belts in school buses are a “best practice,” it’s easy to understand how many accept it at face value, since seat belts already enjoy a lofty place in our society as a proven lifesaver in our personal vehicles. But NHTSA’s motor vehicle safety program, especially its school bus safety program, must be driven by crash data and test results, not emotion.

Consider this: Fewer than 10 children are killed each year as school bus occupants, but more than two dozen children are struck and killed each year getting on or off school buses, usually by someone driving a passenger car or truck. If we want to make a significant safety difference in pupil transportation, a strong argument could be made that the first priority should be to reduce the number of child pedestrian tragedies. Yet there is no discussion of this. It could very well be a smarter safety decision for a state to invest in other equipment or technology than safety belts. At this point, we just don’t know.

Some argue that lap-shoulder belts would mitigate injuries in school bus rollover crashes. We would agree that this alone might be good reason to install them. But NHTSA has not done sufficient testing to document this potential benefit. Doesn’t it make good sense to do a complete range of testing and analysis before putting children in belts and possibly putting them at risk? What if belts actually exacerbate injuries in rollover crashes? What if safety belts delay emergency evacuation time, a more typical school bus safety situation? Whatever happened to the concept of making sure we “first do no harm”?

Advocating something without the facts to justify it, or all the practical answers in terms of day-to-day school bus operations, amounts to social crusading, not promoting realistic safety improvements. Keeping the nation’s pupil transportation system as safe as it can be is not a popularity contest. It’s about making smart decisions that use scarce public resources prudently.

We suggest respectfully that those who advocate safety belts in large school buses simply because they believe it is “the right thing to do” should instead demand the data to prove it and, in the meantime, devote their energies to convincing the federal government to help keep school buses running.

The staggering increase in the cost of fuel has had an impact in every city and town in the U.S., and we therefore believe it is the most pressing safety issue affecting pupil transportation today. Why? Because in some places, it is resulting in cuts in bus service.

Volusia County, Fla., for example, faced with a budget crisis no doubt exacerbated by fuel costs, recently announced it is cutting 40 percent of its school bus stops. Similar cutbacks are being considered coast to coast.

Statistics from the Transportation Research Board show clearly that children are far safer in a school bus than they are walking, riding a bike or riding in a passenger car with a parent or teenage driver. In other words, if more kids walk to school or ride bikes to school, more of them are likely to be killed. That sounds harsh, but it’s the truth. And it’s a conclusion based on data and research, not emotion.

Unfortunately, the public conversation about whether to require safety belts in school buses is driven mostly by emotion. Some even go so far as to say that “the people have spoken” and insinuate that NAPT isn’t listening.

This is nonsense, and the thousands of professionals who make up NAPT take strong exception to the charge. Not only are we listening intently, recall that we actually initiated the conversation with federal regulators because we want parents and state officials to have the facts they deserve and need. The safety of our passengers is paramount. It’s not just what we do passionately every day — it’s who we are. Never have we opposed the introduction of safety equipment or practices that would definitively improve the safety of the children that are entrusted to our care.

Let’s be very clear: NAPT does not oppose the installation of lap-shoulder belts in large school buses. If they will definitively make it safer for all the kids, let’s do it.

Be assured that we are listening, and we hear a scary roar on the horizon if the fuel crisis is not solved quickly. The fuel crisis is real, and it threatens pupil safety, among many other ramifications. If the vital transportation connection between the neighborhood and the schoolhouse is broken, there will be more traffic congestion, more air pollution and more costs and inconvenience heaped on parents. Also, on-time student arrival may be diminished, resulting in school day disruptions.

Doing the right thing for safety involves something very basic first: keeping yellow school buses operating. If you want to hear the people speak, try cutting off their convenient, reliable school bus service and putting their children at greater risk. We don’t recommend it, but the choice is yours.

 


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