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April 01, 2014  |   Comments (34)   |   Post a comment

Compartmentalization plus

by Frank Di Giacomo - Also by this author


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Frank Di Giacomo is publisher of SCHOOL BUS FLEET and vice president, bus and rail, at Bobit Business Media.

Frank Di Giacomo is publisher of SCHOOL BUS FLEET and vice president, bus and rail, at Bobit Business Media.

In the pupil transportation industry, we often remind the public and ourselves that the school bus is the safest way for students to get to and from school.

Federal statistics show that school buses are far safer than other forms of transportation to school, such as walking, biking or riding in a car. That record is important, and it is imperative that we continue to promote it.

But rather than resting on the fact that the yellow bus is the long-established safest form of school transportation, we need to be constantly asking ourselves this question: Could school buses be safer?

When we ask that question, we have to consider lap-shoulder belts, which has long been a contentious issue in the industry.

Not one or the other
One fundamental element in the safety design of the school bus is compartmentalization — the closely spaced, impact-absorbing, high-back, padded seats. Compartmentalization works very well most of the time, but, as the National Transportation Safety Board has confirmed, its protection is limited in side impact and rollover crashes.

That said, we need to be clear that the debate is not compartmentalization vs. lap-shoulder belts. These three-point restraint systems can work together with compartmentalization to enhance its effectiveness.

Lap-shoulder belts can help keep kids in the seating compartments — where they need to be — during a crash. Also, any passengers who don’t buckle up will still be protected to the extent possible by compartmentalization.

Equipping a school bus with lap-shoulder belt seating systems is, in my opinion, “compartmentalization plus.” It is a crash test-approved way to make the bus even safer.

More support
In February, the National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services (NASDPTS) released a new position paper that makes excellent points in support of lap-shoulder belts for school buses. I encourage you to read the paper for yourself, but here’s one quote from it that I want to highlight:

“The addition of lap-shoulder belts to a school bus is a proactive measure by a school district to further enhance the safety of the students it is responsible for transporting. This measure goes beyond the minimum level of expectation for safe student transportation.”

Yes, the cost that lap-shoulder belt seating adds when buying new buses is a hurdle that has to be cleared. But we should treat that cost as a worthy investment to “further enhance the safety of the students,” as NASDPTS put it, and not as a reason to oppose lap-shoulder belts for school buses.

We as an industry have been debating this topic for a long time, and the debate will probably continue until lap-shoulder belts are mandated on large school buses (and I believe that they eventually will be).

I’ve given you my perspective on the issue. Now I’d like to hear yours. We want to provide a forum for anyone interested to discuss the pros and cons of lap-shoulder belts on school buses. Post a comment below, and see what other readers have to say.


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Read more about: NASDPTS, seat belts

I have walked thru buses equiped with seatbelts both with and without students onboard. Those belts that are not in use are drapped all over the floor and in the aisle. With no kids onboard, all of the belts end up on the floor making it a hazzard for the driver to even do their child check. If mandated, they also need to mandate retraction devices or, when there is an evacuation, kids will be falling all over the belts. John

John Thomasson    |    Apr 14, 2014 12:14 PM

What about getting a bunch of incapacitated kids out of the bus - say if there's a fire or explosion imminent? I'd hate to have to cut seat belts on 20 or so kids in a hurry. In my opinion, this is an effort to create a market by the school bus seat industry. Should look good to their stockholders if laws get passed mandating belts...

Brian Alexander    |    Apr 14, 2014 12:18 PM

It really is an issue of either compartmentalization or lap/shoulder belts. The seat frames are different for lap/shoulder seats and the seats are actually wider with the rectractable mechinisms enclosed in the seat. Therefore the seats have to be spaced further apart. Spacing the seats further apart means loss of seating capacity by on average at least (1) row of seating per bus. Once you go the route of lap/shoulder, you are no longer able to rely on compartmentalization. The seats are more rigid and do not provide the same 'cushioning' benefit that non-seatbelt seats provide.

Shawn Brady    |    Apr 14, 2014 12:20 PM

For me the cost is not the problem. What do you do to evacuate the children that are trap because they can not undo the belt unless the driver can push a switch to undo all the belt at once.

Gordon Jessome    |    Apr 14, 2014 12:20 PM

I don't think seat belts are the answer. California has mandatory seat belts. Look at last weeks accident-how many may have been saved if they were able to just get out of their seat? No, I can't say seatbelts caused some deaths. But if I saw the vehicle I was in, on fire, how calm would I be to unlatch the seatbelt?

Kyle    |    Apr 14, 2014 12:27 PM

I am in favor of taking every step possible to improve the safety of a school bus, who wouldn't be. As we know from history however, some "improvements" turn out to be a step in the wrong direction. I am concerned about internal injuries from a low speed crash that would otherwise not exist. An article in the USA Today on September 2, 1999 quotes a Miami, FL trauma surgeon; "Crashes you would tolerate well unbelted all of a sudden are quite injurious if the stopping mechanism is a 2" band wrapped around the belly". Jeffery Augenstein, at the time, headed up a federal research program into car crash injuries. He also was quoted as saying "I have certainly seen where a misplaced lap belt could be more injurious that riding without one". In our rush to make the yellow bus "safer" I hope we don't inadvertently do more harm than good. Thank you for your service to the industry.

Bryan West    |    Apr 14, 2014 12:29 PM

I have driven a School Bus for 34 years and I can promise you, putting seat belts in busses would be one of the biggest headaches you could create for drivers. #1 The vast majority will not only not use them, but will, instead, use them as weapons. I have seat belts in the first three rows of my bus for Pre K's and Kinders and I spend about 10 min. every route getting out of my seat to refasten the belts and snug them down. Then the Jr High get on the bus and slap each other with the buckles. An entire bus equipped with seat belts? A driver's nightmare.

Carole Mathews    |    Apr 14, 2014 12:32 PM

The bus that was involved in the horific collision in Orland, California was equipped with passenger seat belts. Although it was not a school bus, one of the passengers interviewed stated that most of the students did not use the belts. On a school bus, enforcing belt use would be a monumental task and driver / service provider could be charged with negligence for not forcing students wear the belts???

Norm Dube    |    Apr 14, 2014 12:51 PM

In every discussion regarding seat belts on school buses, my position has always been it's a bad idea. While I understand the perspective of keeping kids in the seats during a side impact, it's the seat belts themselves that are for me, the issue. Namely the use of the seat belts as weapons. It would be very easy, considering the height of the seat back, to police the students and keep them from using them to choke or hit other students. The height of the seat back that I alluded to is also an issue as it keeps the younger students; K-2 or 3, from being easily viewed by the driver. How does a driver keep an eye on the most vulnerable students when the seat backs prevent them from being viewed? On top of which, how many side impacts have occurred in recent years that warrant the added expense and trouble of installing seat belts on new buses? It's a problem that is not as dramatic as those who wish to add seat belts to buses (most of whom I would bet have NEVER driven a bus before) and should be quashed at all costs.

Robb    |    Apr 14, 2014 01:04 PM

My concern is we already have problems keeping students in their assigned seats (students know the laws, but they still move seats at any age) Mandating seat belt usage doesn't guarantee all students will use them. So the students in seat 2 use their seat belt as they are suppose to, and the seat behind them do not, what happens in an accident? You can say drivers are required to MAKE students wear them, so how many times will their eyes be off the road to make sure the students have their seat belts fastened? How many of the legislatures that are the driving force behind seat belts on the school have ACTUALLY driven a school bus? School bus manufactures, how many of your people were real school bus drivers? Live in a school bus drivers world for even a month and your view will change! Being a School Bus Driver is hard work!

Scott    |    Apr 14, 2014 01:11 PM

John - absolutely agree that retraction should be mandated, Brian - under what scenario would all 20 belts have to be cut? Isn't that a "last resort" option when simply unlatching would work 99% of the time? Shawn - agree on the spacing, padding could likely be addressed with a design change, Gordon - your "master disengage" switch idea has merit, should be looked in to, Bryan - "1999" says it all - 15 years ago and a lot has changed. I do agree though with the point that a single 2" belt...." Another reason why lap/shoulder systems make sense (distribute the force), Thanks for making the point, Carole - NYS has mandated belts on every seat/every bus for years so many drivers here have dealt with it for years. 72 pax bus, 72 belts, 144 "ends" and I can assure you that if all 144 have to be "refastened" it would take the driver significantly more than 10 mins., OR, the driver can train his/her kids to do it themselves. Make it a game, easy with little ones, requires a bit more "persuasion" with middle/high schoolers but it's "do-able". As far as kids "slapping each other with the buckles..." the very first time it happened on my bus that kid would not pass "go" and march directly to the Principals Office for a "chat". It's really NOT about "headaches" or "nightmares" for the driver.

Buster    |    Apr 14, 2014 01:22 PM

Seat belts can improve safety and increase danger to passenger. A bus equipped with lap/shoulder belts may provide enhanced safety when involved in a side impact or rollover. Additionally, they can help to improve student behavior through greater containment. However, as a driver that has had several occasions to evacuate a bus, I am concerned about the potential tripping hazard and the possibility of students stuck on board while a fire engulfs the bus. There is also the issue of lost capacity, increased cost of busing and ultimately the impact on schools to be able to provide busing with ever encroaching costs. Driver training, regular refreshers and periodic observations and evaluations I believe are essential to keeping drivers focused and attentive to safety. The safety record of pupil transportation is only in part do to the enhanced safety features of the bus...it's the driver that really makes it happen. Or doesn't!

Tom Thorpe    |    Apr 14, 2014 01:26 PM

I've been driving school buses and commercial buses since 1964. The oldest school bus I've driven was manufactured in 1947. A great many improvements have been made since 1964, such as 8-light warning systems; high-backed, padded seat backs; vastly improved mirror systems; automatic tranmissions; improved emergency exits; video surveillance; GPS tracking - the list goes on and on, but the objective has not changed. Our mission is to get our passengers to their destinations safely, and let no harm come to them while they are in our care. I'm fully in favor of any inovation that makes our very safe vehicles even safer. I believe lap-shoulder belts could definitley enhance safety, and if used properly, could improve student behavior. I also believe the concerns expressed by those who have commented before me have merit. In an emergency, evacuating a bus would become much more difficult and time consuming. If not equipped with retractors, the belts become trip & fall hazards. And I have witnessed the negative results of the seat belt buckles being used as weapons, even if it's done playfully. And finally, enforcing the use of the belts would be a monumental task, but if not enforced, I mirror Norm Dube's concern about potential liability for the operator of the bus, and possibly the driver, if it were involved in a crash and the students weren't belted in. These pros and cons need to be thoroughly studied before the belts are mandated.

Norman Mars    |    Apr 14, 2014 01:27 PM

As a private contractor to the schools a third generation provider of transportation wee are proud of our drivers and our safety record. While the idea of restraints on a school bus looks good to the average driver, parent, or even legislator the reality is just enforcing the wearing of the restraint will be monumental. Not only does lose belting lend itself to being a hazard and a potential danger for use against other riders but spacing to get 3 to a seat high school age is already a problem. We have cameras on all our buses and kids still move around. Driver can NOT be made responsible for enforcing this and maintain the great driving that all bus drivers are across this country. This is just another piece of legislation so congress can pat themselves on the back.

David Bryant    |    Apr 14, 2014 01:57 PM

I seriously believe it will not be worth the cost, time, and energy involved with getting seat-belts paid for installed and the kids to use them for another generation when I expect the younger ones will have been more completely taught the benefits of having them on when an accident happens.

Jack Durose    |    Apr 14, 2014 02:00 PM

In all of the conversations and advertising, I have never seen or heard it mentioned the issue of what students are supposed to do with all of the stuff they carry to and from school, like books, bookbags, rolling luggage, gym bags, athletic equipment, athletic equipment bags, band instruments, lunch boxes, cell phones, computers/tablets/pads, etc., while they attempt to secure themselves into a seat beat (while wearing a ski-jacket and gloves) which is probably a non-training issue for them since they all have been in a car-seat and seatbelt since infancy. Let's face it, some of the kids today look like they are running away from home when you pull up to a bus stop.

Rick    |    Apr 14, 2014 02:00 PM

Buster,I appreciate that you may be young and that 1999 was a long time ago but the facts of internal injury do not change over time. If you are referring to the word "shoulder" in the new term "lap shoulder" belts that means nothing in the discussion we are having. How many people do you see who put the shoulder belt behind them? My kids do it in my own car even though I tell them time and again not to.

Bryan West    |    Apr 14, 2014 02:23 PM

I am an experienced driver. This may sound like a good idea (safety-first ideas always do, yes?), but it would be a bad one to implement. Bringing a manageable degree of order to a chaotic situation is what we do on the bus - that place that's not the classroom but not the playground, while transporting students as safely as possible. I take every opportunity available to ask an parent who queries me about it thusly: Do you want to make me decide who - out of all the students on the bus - I can get to with a belt cutter should the need arise? Unless there could be a master release, and districts step out of their zone of paying a driver X amount for a route, no matter how long it takes, as well as implementing compliance standards (how many drivers turn in referrals that vanish?), please don't even go there. Not to mention the weapon use - I've had a student put a dent in the side of the bus with one - there's the tripping hazard as well as the additional liability. It would be a toboggan ride down that road of good intentions.

Rosalind    |    Apr 14, 2014 03:00 PM

Don't forget the fact that seat belts cause injuries. In a minor collision, the possibility of neck injuries will skyrocket. Add to that, if the bus was on it's side and on fire, they wouldn't be able to unbuckle, thus they would all burn. Seat belts on busses are a bad knee jerk response by politicians who don't know, care, or just plain want to placate the public instead of educating it.

Jim Wall    |    Apr 14, 2014 03:42 PM

I am in full support of lap/shoulder belts. It does not matter if everyone uses them, but I'd like my grandsons to be able to make the choice of having the extra protection. That said, our industry is not killing kids inside the bus but rather stats show kids and adults are more pron to being seriously injured or killed outside the bus. We raised the height of seats so we can't see student heads until they are in the 5th grade. Lets concentrate on education everyone about the dangers outside the bus and lets join in getting the private coach industry to upgrade the safety of their coaches so passengers are safer in collisions.

Dean Humphrey    |    Apr 14, 2014 03:45 PM

I firmly believe that legislation has to in place before seat belts are installed to protect school bus drivers and transportation providers. Is the driver responsible if a student who doesn't buckle up and injures a student that buckled up? If that's the case then good luck finding drivers, it's hard to find them now. Set out the rules and regulations first to protect the drivers and providers and then install the belts. I'm sure students will be much more orderly after they are mandated to wear them!!

Larry S. Senga    |    Apr 14, 2014 07:41 PM

Larry S - Agreed, but know that NYS (and probably others) have already blazed the "liability" issue as it relates to our drivers so similar legislation in your (or other's states) shouldn't have to involve reinventing the wheel. Over-simplified but basically it comes down to, legislation in place that protects the driver (and districts) from liability claims with the proviso that the driver's actions met the standards of District Policy, SED, DMV, DOT Rules and Recommendations, and those of a "reasonable (wo)man. The law mandates installation and maintenance of belts and driver's are required as part of their pre and post-trip inspections to ensure that all belts are accessible and in "working condition" (Which basically means stowed neatly on the seat and clipped (to be sure the latch is functional). The law requires installation but there is no requirement that all kids must wear belts. That's a discussion for another day but as it relates to your point it means that, unless your district has a policy that is more stringent (all "k's must wear belts" for example) you, as a driver can not be held liable for not insisting (and guaranteeing) that all kids wear belts at all times. Our district policy goes so far as to say that seatbelt use by students is optional and at their discretion. As drivers, we can NOT mandate a policy on our individual buses that violates district policy. I don't necessarily agree with that part, but such is life.

Buster    |    Apr 14, 2014 08:22 PM

Bryan W - Thanks for the "young" assumption. Even in retirement I (still) consider myself a "young" - 63 year old. (You know what they say about the word "assume".) Since I obviously wasn't able to convey my intent regarding 1999 being a "long time" ago, please allow me to try again. 15 years of accident investigations, safety research, analysis of the impact of safety improvements made during that time, and changes in public perception (hopefully, based on "facts - not unfounded "opinion")- is indeed a "long time" if considered as a percentage of the total number of years things like compartmentalization, 2 point belts, and others that Norman listed above, have been around and in use on our buses. As to the rest of your reply I'm really having a rough time making sense of much of it. The "..facts of internal injury.." absolutely DO "change over time" - especially as a result of safety enhancements implemented in the interim. Compare the number of (actually percentage of) and severity of internal injuries in passenger car accidents prior to 1968 (when belts were mandated) to those after. As to your "..lap/shoulder belts, that means nothing in the conversation we are having.." comment - that one really perplexes me. It is exactly what the discussion is about. The quote you referenced (from 1998) is not only the very definition of anecdotal ("I have seen..."), but must be viewed in the context of the times when he made it. Augenstein's work over many years, is legendary - he was a true giant in his field and is directly or indirectly responsible for many of the most significant vehicle safety systems existing in the form they do today. Reduced force airbags and ACN (Automatic Crash Notification Systems)among many others. That said, when advocating for reduced force airbags (due to specific injuries exacerbated by the original, high force bags) he wasn't arguing AGAINST airbags per se but rather the force reduction for which his studies demonstrated the reduction in i

Buster    |    Apr 14, 2014 08:58 PM

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Buster    |    Apr 14, 2014 10:18 PM

We can go back and forth on this all day as we have for years! The fact still remains...look at the national statistics related to school bus crashes and injuries or fatalities. The commentary about side impacts is also up for grabs. Students belted in seats are tied to the impact vs. being able to move out of the way as an absorbtion of energy of a sort. And, emergency evacuation is still a big concern. I shutter to think about it's potential impact, how much longer it could take and the potential devastating results...

Darryl H.    |    Apr 15, 2014 04:50 AM

I have some buses with the lap/shoulder belt system. The belts are integrated into the seat so hanging belts is not a problem. The problems we have been running into is that students take them off or wear them improperly by putting the shoulder belt behind them. With the high back seats its difficult if not impossible for a driver to see every child who might not be wearing the seat belt or wearing it improperly. Furthermore, my biggest concern is that the aisle space is reduced which would make evacuating the bus with large children wearing heavy coats extremely difficult.

Barry    |    Apr 15, 2014 06:03 AM

Buster, I'm glad you're young at heart! You seem to be much more up to date on this issue than I. I was merely stating that a three point seat belt, when worn, often times turns into a two point and therefore the statement made in 1999 would still be valid. If money is not an object (as it seems in our governments today) then I think I would rather go all in and mandate belts and air bags. There has to be a stopping point, wouldn't you think? If we were talking about a mode of transportation that has a reputation of killing or maiming a high percentage of it's riders, then I'd be wanting to do everything possible to correct that. But this is not the case today. I fear the action of placing belts on buses will have a detrimental affect on the good track record we have. As always, I could be wrong in my assumption.

Bryan West    |    Apr 15, 2014 06:32 AM

When I read the article entitled, 'As A School Bus Driver Expect A Fire In Your Future' I was even more conscientious about emergency evacuations. I have experienced a bus fuel leak evacuation with approximately 30 students and was grateful that all 55 weren't on board at the time. I can only imagine the increased chaos we would have experienced if everyone was trying to get out of a lap/shoulder belt. My husband's experience as a mechanic with daycare vehicles equipped with these belts has been a nightmare - constantly digging crayons, etc. out of the buckle and replacing the broken ones. I have always been the advocate for whatever keeps our precious cargo safe but I honestly cannot endorse the lap/shoulder belt system.

Connie Kent    |    Apr 15, 2014 07:11 AM

We always tell parents "The bus is the safest way to get your child to and from school". To my knowledge that has not changed. How many bus accidents do we have a year? In those crashes, how many lives would have been saved or changed by having seat belts? How many bus fires do we have a year? These are questions that I need answers to before I can make an educated opinion on seat belts. As it stands right now, I still think the school bus is the safest way to get children to and from school everyday. I believe we have more accidents outside the bus than in the bus...either from motorists not paying attention or a driver error. Driving a bus is a tough thing to do. I would love to see the people passing all of these laws obtain a bus driver's license and drive a school bus for one month. That will give them a real perspective on what takes place on buses each day. As for seat belts, at this time, I feel still fell that is safest way to transport students with or without seat belts.

Kathy Petersen    |    Apr 15, 2014 08:36 AM

The school bus industry is in the business of education. Instead of spending tons of money to improve our safety record by a mere 1% through seat belts, could we not spend that money elsewhere and get more 'bang for the buck' by EDUCATING the public? Would our taxpayer funds more wisely be spent on enforcing current traffic laws and educating and encouraging the other not so safe drivers on the road to improve THEIR safety by being safer drivers and thus preventing more of these crashes, instead of a defensive posture of protecting the people from the crash... lets prevent the crash in the first place.... in addition to that, I believe that seat belts on buses should be a local decision based on the local voters and their transportation department. There are situations where they should be installed, and situations where they should not. Leave the control in the hands of the local boards, if the government wants to mandate something, have them mandate that the local board have a policy regarding the issue, just don't tell them what to write!

Nicole Baker    |    Apr 16, 2014 05:48 AM

Canadian statistics indicate 38% of (belted) drivers die in accidents, 33% of (unbelted) passengers are injured. Who do you expect will evacuate these buses? Put the modern lap/shoulder belts in and there will be more able survivors to assist.

Mike McLean    |    Apr 17, 2014 08:53 AM

I still maintain that this is being pushed on us by the seat manufacturers (SafeGuard comes to mind) lobbying legislators. Money talks - legislators get money for their reelection campaigns, and manufacturers make money off of transportation departments, which translates into higher earnings and bonuses for CEOs - all coming from our tax dollars.

Brian Alexander    |    Apr 23, 2014 10:53 AM

Quite a few people have commented on this issue, but it seems everyone is overlooking a different cost here. Actually, it is a 2 part cost. Buses with 3-pt or shoulder/lap belts add an additional cost to the purchase price of the bus. 3-pt belts take up more room, hence, less seating capacity on the bus. Let's just take 1 example, a Type "A" school bus used to come standard (here in N.Y.) with seating capacity for 20 students. So, now you buy a new bus with 3-pt belts, guess what, now the capacity is reduced by 2 to 18. On a "full run", who is going to pick up the other 2 students? You can't just send another bus. Who is going to drive it? If you have to hire another driver, don't you have to factor in that cost? You budgeted X amount of dollars for replacement buses. If you can't hire another driver, then you can buy a larger capacity bus, at a higher cost. Maybe you planned on buying 3 new buses this year, but with the higher cost of buses, maybe you can only buy 2. And 1 more point. What about when it comes to C and D types? If you decide to buy larger capacity buses, look at your maintenance facility. Will a larger bus fit in the shop? Will it fit on your lift? If not, then again, don't you have to factor that in also?

Skip    |    Jun 11, 2014 05:19 AM

The government and media seem to be concentrating on the crash test as the measure of the effectiveness, safety and reason for belts on buses. Not once have I see anyone including a fire safety test, for effectiveness and safety of seatbelts on school buses. We have children, not adults on school buses they can't be expected to remain calm and cool as their bus is catching fire to evacuate in under 2 minutes. And if anyone is thinking, well the monitor/attendant can help. After 15 years in the industry I can confidently say most districts don't have a monitor on every bus. Maybe your larger cities, but rural American can't afford that luxury. As a part of driver training, we partnered with our local fire department to practice bus evacuation from a smoke filled bus. They brought their smoke machine, we provided the bus and drivers. In less than two minutes, you couldn't see your hand in front of your face. Fire needs to be part of the discussion. And as someone else stated, if we are looking to reduce school bus related deaths, we need to look at the danger zone, outside of the bus.

Michelle    |    Jul 11, 2014 07:08 AM

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