Lauren Wells, a University of Alabama senior in civil engineering, reviews data from the videos of seat belt usage.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — During a 12-bus pilot program, researchers have seen use of seat belts on school buses increase among students.
The University of Alabama's (UA) University Transportation Center for Alabama (UTCA) is processing and finalizing the research data of the pilot study assessing the impact of the installation of lap-shoulder seat belts on a limited number of Alabama school buses.
The study results will be sent to the Alabama State Department of Education, Gov. Bob Riley and the Seat Belt Pilot Study Group before being released to the general public.
With 12 new school buses from 10 local school systems equipped with various types of three-point seat belts, the project involved four areas of research: review of national experiences and trends, alterations needed in the Alabama bus fleet if seat belt use is adopted, analysis of Alabama school bus crash data, and a cost-benefit analysis.
Each of the new buses was outfitted with four ceiling-mounted video cameras, allowing the research team to gather data on the level of restraint use, review the percentage of students using the belts and the percentage of students using the belts properly, and to investigate if using the belts keeps students from moving into the aisle and out of the protective compartment provided by the seats. The camera data will also reveal the benefit of having a bus aide to monitor students and will monitor time devoted to buckling at each stop.
The 12 school buses in Alabama were outfitted with interior video cameras to monitor use of the new seat belts. Faces of the children have been blurred to protect identity.
Using the cameras during the past three years, student researchers have made more than 150,000 observations of pupils to determine whether they are wearing their seat belts. UTCA said it is pleased that the number of students wearing the belts properly has risen during the last year. In addition, there has been an increase in positive public perception concerning the installation of the belts.
Dr. Dan Turner, professor of civil engineering and the principal investigator of the research team, explained that the detailed results will not be released until the study is completed, so that the seat belt use does not arbitrarily change as the result of a news article. That would make it impossible to measure the effectiveness of experimental safety treatments.
"There is a genuine excitement in trying different safety ideas to improve the use of belts in school buses," Turner said. "Even though we cannot release actual findings at this time, we are looking to the future and are anxious to reach the goals we set for ourselves three years ago when the study began."
After a fatal school bus accident in Huntsville in 2006, Riley appointed a group to review laws in other states and interview seat belt experts. The group recommended that Alabama test buses with seat belts. Alabama lawmakers then allocated more than $300,000 for a three-year pilot program in 10 school districts. The state purchased 12 new school buses with seat belts. The research grant was awarded to UTCA.
UA said that it is the first institution to carry out comprehensive research of this kind, as there have been no previous large-scale scientific studies conducted to assess the benefits of installing seat belts in school buses. Because of this, the National Transportation Safety Board, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and other agencies have contacted UA's research team and are awaiting the results of the study to determine whether the adoption of seat belts in school buses should be a nationwide trend.