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September 01, 1998  |   Comments (0)   |   Post a comment

Buckling Under the Pressure?

Federal regulators and pupil transportation groups are calling for a new appraisal of school bus occupant safety. Undoubtedly, seat belts will receive a closer look.

by Steve Hirano, Executive Editor

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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."

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