Hidden costs, dangers plague 3-point seat belt controversy

Jack Burns
Posted on April 1, 2002

In late April 2001, supermodel Nikki Taylor suffered critical liver damage and other internal injuries as a result of a car accident. The injuries were reportedly caused by Taylor’s seat belt. Taylor was riding in a car that had an automatic seat belt, and when she sat down in the front passenger seat and shut the door, the shoulder strap automatically came across her upper torso. It was purported that Taylor did not connect the lower, lap belt portion. Upon impact, the force of Taylor’s body slamming into the single portion of the seat belt nearly cut her liver in half. European car manufacturers first noticed the correlation between a single seat belt and serious or fatal internal injuries in car accidents. What made this pronounced was the fact that, in many accidents, the occupants wearing lap belt-only seat belts were the only passengers who suffered injuries. As a result of these findings, the three-point lap/shoulder belt became the standard of the auto industry. The problem that exists today is that the three-point lap/shoulder seat belt and the single lap belt are both generically referred to as a seat belt. When New York state passed the law requiring seat belts on school buses, the public was not informed - as they were with the dangers of passenger-side front-seat air bags - that the seat belts being installed on buses were lap belts only. It wasn’t addressed that lap belts, depending on the type of accident, can cause serious injury or death. In an effort to gracefully exit the lap belt controversy, it was decided that a study of seat belts on school buses would be beneficial. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration conducted the study and promptly proclaimed what was known all along, that the three-point lap/shoulder seat belt combination is the safest type of seat belt. One of the reasons it took so long to reconfirm what was already known was that there was no explanation for the cost-benefit impact of a politically correct decision that may not even achieve the intended results. Realistically, you can only put two students per seat when they wear three-point lap/shoulder seat belts, whereas normally you can seat three. If the three-point lap/shoulder seat belt is required on school buses, it will result in one-third less carrying capacity on most buses in New York. If buses are required to be equipped with three-point seat belts and students are required to use them, our district could be forced to do any or all of the following:

  • Increase the fleet size by approximately 20 buses
  • Hire new drivers
  • Put an addition on the bus garage
  • Hire one to two more mechanics
  • Increase the size of the bus parking lot
  • Increase maintenance and fuel costs by approximately 33 percent

    I believe that New York state and the federal government may try to promote the three-point lap/shoulder seat belt as simply an upgrade to the present lap belt system. I doubt that they will reveal the fact that transportation costs could rise approximately 33 percent. Nor will they describe how, in a time of driver shortage, trying to hire 33 percent more drivers could ultimately result in lower standards. When the true costs of this requirement finally impact budgets, I see driver training being scaled back and the upgrading of transportation garages and mechanical staff being put on hold. I also question the ability of a kindergarten student to properly adjust his three point lap/shoulder seat belt when he’s wearing a snow suit or carrying a backpack, a lunch box or a school project. All carry-on items, including books and musical instruments, would have to be prohibited from school buses because there is no room on a bus seat for carry-on items. Monitors would have to help students buckle up so that buses would not have to wait for students to properly buckle up on their own. Furthermore, the additional buses on the road resulting from reduced capacities would aggravate traffic, and there would in all probability be an increase in student fatalities outside the bus caused by passing motorists. The proven value of a three-point lap/shoulder belt speaks for itself. Statistically though, three point lap/shoulder seat belts will have minimal impact on reducing student injuries or deaths in school bus-related accidents. My concern is that unless major driver and program cost improvements are first put in place, the minimal sense of security coming from three point lap/shoulder seat belts on school buses will be shattered by the many low-tech issues that have caused and will continue to cause school bus-related injuries or fatalities. These issues may be exacerbated by the difficulties in adapting the drivers and program to the upgrade to three-point seat belts on school buses and may result in an increased occurrence of injuries. Cost-benefit improvements must be made before this becomes a simple debate over whether seat belts on school buses are good or bad. Jack Burns is transportation supervisor for Grand Island (N.Y.) Central School District

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