Fasten your seat belt

Frank Di Giacomo, Publisher
Posted on August 1, 2007

Now that I’ve got your attention, I’d like to comment on the recent day-long meeting in Washington, D.C., facilitated by our friends at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).

The “seat belt summit,” as it’s been dubbed, certainly didn’t settle anything. It allowed for the airing of divergent viewpoints on the matter of improving occupant crash protection in school buses, but it didn’t provide a verdict.

It promised much, however. According to NHTSA officials, the agency is going to publish a proposed rulemaking on improvement of school bus crash protection by early next year (see News Alert). This likely will launch an earnest effort to provide school bus operators with national guidelines for the implementation and use of three-point systems.

Texas turns the corner
I spoke out about this topic in my January 2007 editorial, “Clinging to the Past?” And I haven’t changed my mind. I believe that three-point belt systems will become the industry standard in the next 10 years.

As you probably know, Texas recently joined California in mandating three-point restraint systems on all new school buses.

In the next year or so, I’m sure other states will follow the lead of Texas and California, two of the most populous and influential states in the country. After that, a domino effect will begin, and other states will follow suit. Why? Liability concerns are one reason.

Imagine you’re a school district in Louisiana. One of your buses crashes, and a student is ejected and dies. Lawyers for the family of that student will need to look no farther than an adjoining state, Texas, for evidence that some states require new school buses to have three-point belts. That’s a powerful argument in favor of the plaintiff and puts a lot of pressure on the school district to explain why it didn’t equip its buses with a similar type of active restraint.

Now that the major manufacturers offer three-point restraint systems on their buses, large and small, there’s no real excuse for a school bus operator not to have them installed in their vehicles. Yes, they can always argue that they’re expensive and reduce capacity, but I don’t think a jury is going to look favorably on these arguments when a child’s life has been lost and his or her grieving family is looking on. Do you?

Complacency can be dangerous
But it’s more than just a liability issue. This industry’s longstanding argument about the effectiveness of compartmentalization has the tired ring of complacency: “It ain’t broke, so why fix it?” Why? Because the highways are growing ever more dangerous, with inattentive motorists; bigger, heavier cars and trucks; and a decaying infrastructure that makes roads harder to safely navigate. We need to respond to these challenges with more than the status quo.

Our school buses are extremely safe, yes, but they can be safer. I believe three-point restraints are eventually going to be required nationwide, either through state action or federal intervention. Parents and schools will soon be demanding them.

Compartmentalization is a great passenger safety system; adding three-point belts will only make it safer.


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