RALEIGH, N.C. — A program that could shed some light on the practicality and effectiveness of lap/shoulder belt systems in large school buses is underway in North Carolina.
Thirteen conventional school buses equipped with lap/shoulder belt systems manufactured by C.E. White have been put into operation at 11 North Carolina school districts.
Derek Graham, North Carolina’s director of pupil transportation, said the buses were delivered to the school districts in early December and began hitting the streets in mid-January.
Graham said the program has been more than a year in the making, pre-dating the release of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s report on occupant protection, which was issued in 2002.
“It started when we saw the C.E. White product at the NAPT trade show in Nashville in 2001,” Graham said. Talks were begun with representatives of C.E. White and Thomas Built Buses, which already had the state’s order of buses in the manufacturing pipeline.
Once the logistics were squared away, Graham’s staff at the Department of Public Instruction began approaching districts to see if they would be willing to accept modifications to their buses, namely the installation of lap/shoulder systems.
Eleven districts agreed, and it was decided that 13 buses would be fitted with the C.E. White system.
Graham said the impetus for the program was two-fold: “While there may be minimal benefit in reducing the number of fatalities, we want to find out if there’s a reduction in injuries and an improvement in rider behavior,” he said. “The only way to find out is to try it and see.”
The lap/shoulder belt systems are installed on Thomas’ 72-passenger conventional buses. Instead of the traditional three/three seating configuration with 39-inch seats, the buses have a three/two setup with 45- and 30-inch seats. This will reduce design capacity from 72 to 60 passengers.
But Graham pointed out that the three/two configuration can actually boost capacity in some cases. “If they can sit three high school students on a 45-inch seat, that would increase capacity,” Graham said, explaining that, in general, only two high school students will fit on a standard 39-inch seat.
Because the C.E. White seats are slightly deeper than standard seats, the bus was lengthened slightly to accommodate 12 rows, Graham said. “The same number of rows would not fit in the same bus,” he said. “The people at Thomas suggested lengthening the bus rather than decreasing the capacity.”
The buses will be used at a variety of schools at the 11 districts — nine elementary schools, eight middle schools, three high schools and one K-12 school.
Graham said the transportation directors at each of the districts have been asked to lay out the expectation that the restraint systems will be used. “But it’s not anything that we’ve told them to require,” he added.
The transportation directors were also told to select a variety of routes in terms of disciplinary problems. “We asked them to not necessarily pick their best-behaved routes,” Graham said. To benchmark the response to the lap/shoulder belt systems, video footage was taken of the affected routes before the new buses were deployed. Once the buses have been on the road for a few months, a before-and-after video comparison will be performed.
The Center for Urban Affairs at North Carolina State University is helping to gather information about the effectiveness of the restraint systems. Researchers already have gathered pre-implementation data from parents and principals regarding their perceptions and opinions about school bus safety. “We’ll be real curious to see if the opinions change after the buses have been out there for a couple of months,” Graham said.
Perhaps the most instructive feedback will come from the drivers, however. They’ll be assessing changes in behavior on their buses and will try to get a handle on the usage rate of the belt systems.
Graham said he is keeping an open mind about the results of the program. “It may not accomplish what we thought it would, but it may accomplish things we didn’t expect,” he said. The information gathered from the program will be analyzed for future procurement. “We have a fleet of 13,000 buses that we replace. We wouldn’t want to replace them without some data behind us,” Graham said.