Last year, the administrator for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHSTA) made an announcement that “School buses should have seat belts. Period.” As a school bus operator, I vehemently disagree with his assessment.
In fact, I believe that he is dead wrong. Following are my reasons, and cost has nothing to do with it. This is for full-size buses, not mini-buses.
Using NHTSA’s own figures, from 2005 to 2014, 53 school-age children who were occupants of school transportation vehicles were killed in school transportation-related crashes. (Those vehicles could include non-school buses functioning as school buses.)
This is an average of about five passenger deaths per year. Don’t get me wrong — these passengers are important. However, take into consideration the huge number of ridership in this nation. As of the 2013-14 school year (the latest available), there were nearly 27 million students transported daily on school buses in the U.S.
Now, reading several articles that are pro seat belt, not one has given thought to how many lives could be lost in an overturned bus with, say, 40 passengers strapped in and fire, smoke, or water engulfing the bus. You could lose five students, 20, 30, or even more.
It has been stated that seat belts are easy to undo. Have you ever tried to release a seat belt under the weight of your own body? Next to impossible!
During school bus safety training, with no backpacks, no instruments, no coats, on flat ground, in good order, one seat at a time, it will take a minute and 45 seconds to evacuate a school bus with 40 passengers. Let them all get up together and try to get out at the same time, and it will take more than three minutes.
Some years ago, a school bus manufacturer put out a video showing an electrical fire in a 21-passenger bus, filling it with black smoke in a minute and 45 seconds. Imagine, if you will, 40 passengers strapped in and the bus is on its side, with children panicking, trying to get loose. Their next breath could be smoke, fumes from diesel fuel, or water coming in from a creek, a lake, or a quarry (such as the 1989 Alton, Texas, disaster in which 21 students were killed). Have you ever seen fear in the face of a child? I have!
When it comes to evacuating students from a school bus in an emergency, we should not ask the impossible of drivers or emergency personnel.
I will grant you that seat belts may prevent some broken bones in some incidents, but I am unwilling to give you or anyone else one more life.
Fred Lenz is president of St. James Bus Service Inc. in St. James, Minnesota. He has 45 years of experience in school transportation, 40 of them as an owner-operator.