Just seven states have school bus seat belt laws, but many in the pupil transportation industry expect to see more adopted in coming years, as well as school districts that decide to install seat belts independently from any legislative mandate.
“From my perspective, it’s really up to the individual transportation director, individual states and individual school boards to look at the risk and decide what’s best for them, and then to have a chance to plan for it,” says James Johnson, vice president of business development and corporate sales at IMMI, producer of the SafeGuard brand of seating products. “The worst thing that can happen is for school districts to have legislation forced upon them and the net result is leaving children off buses.”
Either way, it’s a slow-growing trend marked by one of the most contentious debates in the industry. “They love ‘em or they hate ‘em,” says Tony Everett, president and CEO at The C.E. White Co. “There is passion on both sides of the issue.”
Specialty seats, including school bus seats equipped with three-point belts, currently represent just 4 percent of C.E. White Co.’s total seating sales, Everett says. “These poor states have got to fund it,” he says. “Let’s face it: The school bus industry has decreased more than 35 percent in the past two years. We don’t see that trend changing.”
However, Everett notes that while belted seating is still not widely adopted, the discussion has changed over the decades. “My partner Robert Knapp, when he took three-point belts to the first trade show many years ago, he was laughed at. We’ve come a long way when it’s OK to talk about three-point seat belts.”
Each year, several states see bills proposed that are frequently rejected due to economic concerns or successful campaigns on the part of those who see seat belts as extraneous for a mode of transportation that is already the safest on the road.
Seating manufacturer M2K is part of a joint company with auto and truck seating manufacturer Tachi-S Engineering USA and automotive safety system manufacturer Takata Safety Systems USA.
“The last time we did a census or a survey, there were about 30 states that were actively working on seat belt legislation. Some of those have temporarily fallen by the wayside as a result of the economy,” says Ron Lamparter, co-chairman of M2K Seating and CEO of SynTec Seating Solutions. “I believe that lap-shoulder belts are inevitable in school buses. The only question is one of timing as to how long it will be before they’re adopted across the board.”
When the economy finally turns around and more funding is available for school systems, seat belt manufacturers say that the arguments against seat belts will be looking weaker.
Compartmentalization no longer enough?
For one, Johnson argues that the problem of capacity loss due to seat belt installation has been solved with seat belt systems that are flexible to allow for either two larger passengers or three smaller passengers to occupy the same seat.
In addition, Everett makes some compelling points about compartmentalization and the limited protection it provides in a bus crash, with a personal twist.
“As a young child, I was in a school bus accident,” he says. “I remember hitting the seat in front of me, and they used to have a stainless steel back panel. We’ve come so far with compartmentalization, but it’s not complete.”
While the compartmentalization concept has helped to prevent fatalities, it does not go far enough to eliminate injuries, he says. “It’s not so much the fatalities that happen in bus accidents, it’s the injuries that happen when a child falls out of the seat,” Everett says. “There are thousands of injuries documented out there — emergency room cases of kids that get hurt just from the bus slamming on the brakes.”
He also points out that crowded buses carrying teenage students often cannot provide complete compartmentalization protection. “Compartmentalization is based upon everybody being contained in that compartment,” he says. “You show me three teenagers sitting in a school bus seat without seat belts and that third teenager on the outside is sitting perfectly in line with the seat in front of them. Their leg’s out in the aisle and they’re hanging on to the outside of the seat.”