Without missing a beat, the issue of seat belts on large school buses took center stage at the National Association for Pupil Transportation's 24th Annual Conference and Trade Show in Austin, Texas. The five-day event drew approximately 850 delegates and guests. In addition, the trade show at the Austin Convention Center featured 129 vendors. The lively discussion of occupant protection on school buses followed the National Transportation Safety Board's (NTSB) one-day hearing on bus crashworthiness in August in Las Vegas, Nev. In Austin, federal regulators and an executive producer for CNN weighed in on the issue, providing their diverse opinions on the continuing controversy.
Hall calls for change
In his keynote address, NTSB Chairman Jim Hall signaled that the federal agency was ready to call for installation of a restraint system, possibly lap-shoulder belts, on large school buses. "We have to stop being indecisive on this issue," he said. "Let's commit to doing it, but let's do it right." Hall said the NTSB's ongoing study of school bus crashes that resulted in nine fatalities and 121 injuries suggests that compartmentalization does not necessarily prevent ejections or injuries to youngsters sitting away from the impact zone. "These findings may challenge our 1987 findings," Hall said, referring to the NTSB's study of 43 school bus crashes that indicated that seat belts would not have significantly changed the injury outcomes in the accidents. To bolster his position, Hall suggested that the school transportation industry look more closely at its responsibility to all of the nation's children, not just those on school buses. Hall said children are being sent conflicting signals about seat-belt use: It's acceptable to ride in one type of vehicle — a school bus — without buckling up, but not in a passenger car. "We need to be concerned about this mixed message," he said. In what he described as his personal opinion, Hall said ". . . it's our turn to step up to the plate on the issue of lap/shoulder belts on school buses."
NHTSA shows restraint
As the NTSB applies pressure for a commitment to some form of a belt-restraint system on school buses, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) holds steady with its position that a determination cannot be made without extensive crash testing and additional accident analysis. Toward that end, NHTSA announced in August a two-year, $900,000 plan to develop the "next-generation occupant protection system." Philip Recht, NHTSA's deputy administrator, told delegates that the three-phase program most likely will investigate countermeasures such as padded side walls and arm rests as well as lap belts and lap/shoulder belts. "We will go into this entire process, particularly the testing, with no preconceptions," Recht said. "It is our goal to be an honest broker and let the science tell us where to go." Recht added, however, that any improvements to compartmentalization will have to satisfy several criteria, including affordability, applicability to passengers of all sizes and maintenance of seating capacity.