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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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NAPT urges crash tests
To confront the issue, the NAPT has called upon NHTSA to perform crash testing of lap belts on school buses. "I’m still not convinced we have a problem [with compartmentalization], but we don’t want it to be a crisis before we do anything," Carnahan said. "The last comprehensive, federally funded study of school bus occupant protection was conducted over two decades ago." After learning that NHTSA will explore alternatives to compartmentalization, or an enhanced version of it, Carnahan suggested that the federal agency look at everything. "If they’re going to do some testing, they should look at possible ways to improve what we’re doing without putting belts on," Carnahan says. "And if they do need to put belts on, what kind of belts should they be? There are a lot of issues to consider." Carnahan, a former state pupil transportation director in Washington state, denies that the industry has closed its mind to seat belts. "If we knew for sure that this was the best thing to do, we would do that," he says, adding that some seat belt advocates have little at stake in challenging the status quo. "Their agenda is to make it happen, but they don’t have to live with it," he says. While the NAPT is calling for crash-testing of lap belts, the National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services (NASDPTS) believes the "most logical options" to consider for research and testing are lap/shoulder belts and upgrades to compartmentalization, assuming any changes are found to be necessary.

NASDPTS steps forward
In a recently issued position paper, NASDPTS stated that lap/shoulder belts offer superior levels of crash protection than lap belts, but added that there is limited information on the "technological feasibility, operational practicability, potential benefits and other potential positive and negative concerns associated with the installation of lap/shoulder belts in school buses." The question of lap belts vs. three-point restraints, as related to the larger issue, has generated considerable interest. Earlier this year, Wagner of Alpha School Bus Co. urged NHTSA to begin a three-year program to design a seat that could accommodate three-point restraints. "It’s time for technology to tell us what’s the best seat to use," Wagner says. "Let’s stop doing this haphazardly. Let’s do it the right way and get it done. I think people are spending way too much time on this one issue." Ron Kinney, chief administrative officer for Laidlaw Transit’s Sacramento office and the former state pupil transportation director in California, agrees. "It is time to stop the seat belt debate and bring all the appropriate government agencies, industry companies and national organizations together to resolve the issue," he says. However, if the verdict is to mandate a three-point restraint system, padded front and side compartments and arm rests, school bus operators can expect repercussions, especially on the financial side. Says Kinney, "If the unintended consequences of these safety actions force schools to cut bus service, or eliminate transportation, has transportation safety been enhanced, compromised or eliminated?"

Convert’s perspective
Linda Yenzer, transportation director at Hunterdon/Flemington-Raritan Regional District in Flemington, N.J., has visited the seat belt controversy from both sides of the aisle. She was a staunch opponent of seat belts when they were considered in the early 1990s in New Jersey. "I would have never willingly voted for them," she says. But in 1993, Yenzer had no choice. New Jersey officials had mandated that all new buses had to be equipped with lap belts. Despite misgivings about the decision, she trained her drivers and students on the seat belt policies and procedures. And, surprisingly, she hasn’t experienced many problems. "All the negatives just don’t exist," Yenzer says. "I did not expect what I got, at all." Vandalism of the equipment has been rare. "If we have 10 belts per year that have to be replaced or repaired, that’s a lot," Yenzer says. She adds, however, that discipline problems aboard her approximately 100 buses are few and that other districts, especially in more urban areas, could experience something quite different. Another common concern is getting the passengers to actually wear the belts. Yenzer coaches her drivers to remind every student to buckle up every day. "As far as I’m concerned, that ends our responsibility," she says. "I don’t believe that it’s possible for the driver to act as a policeman. The seat belt is there; it’s mandatory and we explain how to use it two or three times a year. If the students choose not to use it, there’s nothing I can do about it." Occasionally, the restraints are used as a behavior management tool. Drivers who are having problems with a particular child are encouraged to require him or her to put on the seat belt. "They can use this thing to their advantage," Yenzer says. In New York, the only state other than New Jersey to mandate seat belts on large buses, the concerns about use — or abuse — of the restraints are similar. But one transportation supervisor, Bill McAdams of Walton School District, has reached the same conclusions as his New Jersey peer. McAdams says student behavior has changed since his district starting putting belts on its buses back in 1986. "It’s changed in our favor," he says. 'It’s cut down on kids getting up and wandering around the bus. At first there was some resistance from the drivers, but they’ve gotten to the point where they think they’re all right." Nor has McAdams seen much vandalism of the belts, though he’s heard reports to the contrary from several other transportation supervisors. "In the last three years, I’d say we’ve had three seat belts damaged," McAdams says. He believes that this lack of vandalism could be attributed to the district’s policy that the children wear the belts. "The belts are around them," he says. "They’re not just dangling." Like Yenzer, McAdams was leery of the mandate for seat belts. "I was against them from the beginning, but I’ve learned to live with them," he says. "I anticipated, just like the drivers, that the kids would whack each other with the belt buckles. It just didn’t materialize." Whether seat belts will materialize on all of the nation’s school buses in the next several years is still open to debate. But, "the worm is turning," according to Wagner of Alpha School Bus. "Before, the industry wouldn’t even talk about it," he says. "Now people are starting to talk about it because they are finally starting to admit that seat belts are something that we need to look at."

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