Buckling Under the Pressure?

Steve Hirano, Executive Editor
Posted on September 1, 1998

A school bus with 56 children is motoring down a highway when a tractor-trailer rig runs a red light and slams into the side of the bus. The bus is knocked into oncoming traffic and slammed by another truck coming in the opposite direction. The bus rolls over. Four students are ejected from the vehicle and the others are tossed like bowling pins into the walls and ceiling. Five children are killed and dozens of others are severely injured, including three who are paralyzed. Meanwhile, on another road in another town, a school bus loaded with 62 children wends its way down a country road when a deer bolts into the path of the vehicle, forcing the driver to swerve onto the shoulder of the highway. He loses control. The bus slides down a hillside and pitches into a murky bog. The children, strapped into their seats with lap belts, panic as the bus starts to fill with water. Many are unable to disengage their belts. Rescuers, too late in reaching the scene, discover that more than a dozen children drowned while trying to get free. There’s no denying that the issue of seats belts on school buses is fiercely emotional. The fictional scenarios described above are horrific point-counterpoint arguments for and against their use. But the day-to-day reality of school transportation safety is much less dramatic, and decisions about whether to install seat belts on school buses will be based on crash-test results, real-world experiences, statistical analyses and availability of resources. A compelling verdict — for or against — has not been reached, though advocates on each side of the controversy can recite a litany of crash test interpretations, passenger behavior theories and anecdotal evidence to support their respective causes. While no one doubts that school buses are the safest form of surface transportation, the debate over seat belts continues.

New study announced
However, recent developments suggest that school bus occupant safety will receive a tune-up — if not an overhaul — over the next few years. The addition of an active passenger restraint system, which might include a two- or three-point belt, is going to be seriously considered. "The demand for a restraint is very clear," says Ted Finlayson-Schueler, executive director of the Pupil Transportation Safety Institute in Syracuse, N.Y. "From what I’ve observed in the past six months or so, the trend in the industry is an attitude that seat belts are going to be with us whether we like it or not." While many industry veterans cling to the notion that seat belts have no place on school buses, others are yielding to the belief that change is inevitable. "I think that some type of seat belt will eventually be on school buses," says Carroll Pitts, transportation director at Cobb County School District in Marietta, Ga. "With the two CNN segments [advocating seat belts on school buses] and the resolution adopted by the national PTA, the pressure is going to continue to mount to the point that seat belts will be there. One way or another, they’re going to be there." Rather than deny this inevitability, leaders in pupil transportation should be searching for ways to control or influence the process, according to Finlayson-Schueler. "We should not just stay in the corner and lick our wounds," he says. "If we believe that a lap belt is not an appropriate restraint, let’s get to work and find out what an appropriate restraint is." Indeed, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration announced a $900,000 program to re-evaluate compartmentalization. In a report to Congress, NHTSA said, "Even though compartmentalization has proven to be an excellent form of occupant protection, the agency has initiated an extensive research program to develop the next generation occupant protection system." "I think the industry is on notice that it has to move forward, not just in terms of seat belts but for other safety-related issues," says Alan Ross, a Connecticut dentist who earlier this year revived the defunct National Coalition for School Bus Safety, which advocates the installation of seat belts.

Public discontent grows
In announcing this two-year program, NHTSA addresses growing public discontent. The average American doesn’t understand why seat belts have not found a place on school buses, when they’re mandated in the family car. "I don’t think that parents and the general public have been educated about how safe school buses are on the inside," says Dan Kobussen, manager of Kobussen Buses Ltd., which operates 120 buses in Kaukauna, Wis. "I don’t think we’ll ever hear the end of this debate because parents want their kids to put on seat belts whenever they get into a moving vehicle." "Seat belts are a motherhood and apple pie issue," says Mike Wagner, president of Alpha School Bus Co. in Crestwood, Ill. "It’s hard to go before parents and say, ‘We don’t use seat belts on school buses’ when we use them on so many other vehicles." Phil Recht, deputy administrator at NHTSA, said one objective of the federal agency’s program is to address the public’s concerns. "It’s important to provide the science that perhaps will take some of the emotion out of this debate and lead us all to the most informed choices possible," he says.

CNN enters the fray
This issue was dramatized — and many believe unfairly — in recent CNN segments, which focused on school bus crashes, including the April 1997 tragedy in Monticello, Minn., that left three children dead and an August 1996 rollover accident in Flagstaff, Ariz., that injured 31 children. To heighten the emotional impact of its report, CNN offered images and voices of children who have been permanently disabled in crashes of seat belt-less school buses. School transportation officials have described the segments as more suited for Hard Copy than CNN. "I don't know who at CNN has this agenda they want to push," says Don Carnahan, president of the National Association for Pupil Transportation (NAPT) and a business development director for Laidlaw Transit Inc. He has accused CNN of distorting facts and attempting to influence government policy, especially in regard to a report that the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB)is preparing on the crashworthiness of school buses. The report, due in the spring of 1999, could recommend that school buses be equipped with lap belts. Meanwhile, Ross praised CNN for doing "an excellent job" in making the public aware of the seat belt issue. "It was a catalyst to getting people to pay attention to school bus safety," he says. "Sooner or later, we’re going to see some significant changes."

NAPT urges crash tests
To confront the issue, the NAPT has called upon NHTSA to perform crash testing of lap belts on school buses. "I’m still not convinced we have a problem [with compartmentalization], but we don’t want it to be a crisis before we do anything," Carnahan said. "The last comprehensive, federally funded study of school bus occupant protection was conducted over two decades ago." After learning that NHTSA will explore alternatives to compartmentalization, or an enhanced version of it, Carnahan suggested that the federal agency look at everything. "If they’re going to do some testing, they should look at possible ways to improve what we’re doing without putting belts on," Carnahan says. "And if they do need to put belts on, what kind of belts should they be? There are a lot of issues to consider." Carnahan, a former state pupil transportation director in Washington state, denies that the industry has closed its mind to seat belts. "If we knew for sure that this was the best thing to do, we would do that," he says, adding that some seat belt advocates have little at stake in challenging the status quo. "Their agenda is to make it happen, but they don’t have to live with it," he says. While the NAPT is calling for crash-testing of lap belts, the National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services (NASDPTS) believes the "most logical options" to consider for research and testing are lap/shoulder belts and upgrades to compartmentalization, assuming any changes are found to be necessary.

NASDPTS steps forward
In a recently issued position paper, NASDPTS stated that lap/shoulder belts offer superior levels of crash protection than lap belts, but added that there is limited information on the "technological feasibility, operational practicability, potential benefits and other potential positive and negative concerns associated with the installation of lap/shoulder belts in school buses." The question of lap belts vs. three-point restraints, as related to the larger issue, has generated considerable interest. Earlier this year, Wagner of Alpha School Bus Co. urged NHTSA to begin a three-year program to design a seat that could accommodate three-point restraints. "It’s time for technology to tell us what’s the best seat to use," Wagner says. "Let’s stop doing this haphazardly. Let’s do it the right way and get it done. I think people are spending way too much time on this one issue." Ron Kinney, chief administrative officer for Laidlaw Transit’s Sacramento office and the former state pupil transportation director in California, agrees. "It is time to stop the seat belt debate and bring all the appropriate government agencies, industry companies and national organizations together to resolve the issue," he says. However, if the verdict is to mandate a three-point restraint system, padded front and side compartments and arm rests, school bus operators can expect repercussions, especially on the financial side. Says Kinney, "If the unintended consequences of these safety actions force schools to cut bus service, or eliminate transportation, has transportation safety been enhanced, compromised or eliminated?"

Convert’s perspective
Linda Yenzer, transportation director at Hunterdon/Flemington-Raritan Regional District in Flemington, N.J., has visited the seat belt controversy from both sides of the aisle. She was a staunch opponent of seat belts when they were considered in the early 1990s in New Jersey. "I would have never willingly voted for them," she says. But in 1993, Yenzer had no choice. New Jersey officials had mandated that all new buses had to be equipped with lap belts. Despite misgivings about the decision, she trained her drivers and students on the seat belt policies and procedures. And, surprisingly, she hasn’t experienced many problems. "All the negatives just don’t exist," Yenzer says. "I did not expect what I got, at all." Vandalism of the equipment has been rare. "If we have 10 belts per year that have to be replaced or repaired, that’s a lot," Yenzer says. She adds, however, that discipline problems aboard her approximately 100 buses are few and that other districts, especially in more urban areas, could experience something quite different. Another common concern is getting the passengers to actually wear the belts. Yenzer coaches her drivers to remind every student to buckle up every day. "As far as I’m concerned, that ends our responsibility," she says. "I don’t believe that it’s possible for the driver to act as a policeman. The seat belt is there; it’s mandatory and we explain how to use it two or three times a year. If the students choose not to use it, there’s nothing I can do about it." Occasionally, the restraints are used as a behavior management tool. Drivers who are having problems with a particular child are encouraged to require him or her to put on the seat belt. "They can use this thing to their advantage," Yenzer says. In New York, the only state other than New Jersey to mandate seat belts on large buses, the concerns about use — or abuse — of the restraints are similar. But one transportation supervisor, Bill McAdams of Walton School District, has reached the same conclusions as his New Jersey peer. McAdams says student behavior has changed since his district starting putting belts on its buses back in 1986. "It’s changed in our favor," he says. 'It’s cut down on kids getting up and wandering around the bus. At first there was some resistance from the drivers, but they’ve gotten to the point where they think they’re all right." Nor has McAdams seen much vandalism of the belts, though he’s heard reports to the contrary from several other transportation supervisors. "In the last three years, I’d say we’ve had three seat belts damaged," McAdams says. He believes that this lack of vandalism could be attributed to the district’s policy that the children wear the belts. "The belts are around them," he says. "They’re not just dangling." Like Yenzer, McAdams was leery of the mandate for seat belts. "I was against them from the beginning, but I’ve learned to live with them," he says. "I anticipated, just like the drivers, that the kids would whack each other with the belt buckles. It just didn’t materialize." Whether seat belts will materialize on all of the nation’s school buses in the next several years is still open to debate. But, "the worm is turning," according to Wagner of Alpha School Bus. "Before, the industry wouldn’t even talk about it," he says. "Now people are starting to talk about it because they are finally starting to admit that seat belts are something that we need to look at."

Related Topics: seat belts

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