New NHTSA study spurs hope, anxiety

Steve Hirano, Executive Editor
Posted on September 1, 1998

Baseball hall-of-famer Satchel Paige once said, "Don’t look back because something may be gaining on you." True, something may be gaining on you, but what if it’s the guy who found your wallet and wants to return it? Something is gaining on the school transportation industry. It’s the mounting pressure to address the issue of seat belts on school buses. Certainly, that pressure has existed for several years, but it’s been ratcheted to a higher level recently by media coverage, specifically CNN’s controversial segments on school bus safety, and a growing unease that something can - and should - be done to improve passenger safety. Accidents such as the Monticello, Minn., tragedy, in which a school bus was broadsided by a gravel truck, killing three children, and the Flagstaff, Ariz., roll-over bus accident in which 31 children were injured, including five who were ejected from the vehicle, have prompted the National Transportation Safety Board to look more closely at the crashworthiness of school buses. And many industry stalwarts believe it’s finally time to confront the issue of seat belts on school buses with more than a lecture about the benefits of compartmentalization.

Step in the right direction
Toward that end, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s (NHTSA) plan to re-evaluate the school bus occupant protection system (see Industry News) is perfectly timed. Now what the industry needs is to participate as much as possible in the project. According to the plan, NHTSA will publish a notice in the Federal Register asking the public for input on what type of systems should be tested. Some obvious suggestions are lap belts, three-point shoulder/lap restraints and padded arm rests. It must be noted, however, that NHTSA requires that proposed systems do more than simply reduce the number of injuries and fatalities. According to the plan, any system that NHTSA tests must be "reasonable in cost and [cannot] substantially reduce the occupant capacity of school buses or substantially inhibit emergency evacuation." Does that remove from consideration lap belts and three-point restraints? Both would inhibit an emergency evacuation to some degree, and three-point restraints most likely would reduce the seating capacity. I guess that depends on how you define "substantially."

A solution or a problem?
Let’s say, however, that NHTSA agrees that lap belts and three-point restraints meet the criteria and discover through research and crash testing that one or the other is the most effective method of reducing injuries and fatalities. Parents would be happy; the media would find a new controversy to pursue; and school bus operators would have a real problem on their hands. Without speculating about the specific cost of adding these restraints to a school bus, it’s pretty clear that it would be "significant," though perhaps not "substantial." What I mean by significant is that school bus operators would have to modify their buying habits, either buying fewer buses (and possibly reducing service through extended walking distances) or spec’ing fewer options that could provide safety benefits, say, outside the bus, where the majority of children are killed in school bus-related accidents. The question then becomes: Would this "next generation of occupant protection system" prove to be the solution we’re looking for? Or would it place a greater burden on school bus operators, who, justifiably, can claim that they’re already providing the safest form of surface transportation? I don’t have answers to these questions. I don’t think anybody does. But NHTSA should be prepared to wrestle with these concerns as it strives to improve passenger protection.

Related Topics: NHTSA, seat belts

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