Westfield (Ind.) Washington Schools will test out lap-shoulder seat belts on six of its school buses in a new pilot program, as we recently reported.

Several aspects of this program are particularly interesting. First, the seat belts will be retrofitted onto existing buses in Westfield’s fleet. It’s much more common for lap-shoulder belts to be installed on new buses, although we did report a few years ago that Dallas County Schools was retrofitting its older buses with the three-point restraints in addition to spec’ing them on new buses.

The cost of retrofitting school buses with lap-shoulder belts is high. In the Westfield project, IMMI is footing the bill for the retrofitting labor costs, while the school district will cover the equipment costs.

Thomas McMahon is executive editor of School Bus Fleet.

Thomas McMahon is executive editor of School Bus Fleet.

Julie Cooley, director of marketing communications for IMMI, said that multiple factors make retrofitting school buses with lap-shoulder belts more expensive. Those include the labor costs of removing the existing seats and installing the new seats, the expense of disposing of or storing the existing seats, the higher prices of seats sold in small quantities (as opposed to large-volume OEM customers), and any additional finish or trim replacement costs, such as flooring.

The second interesting factor of the pilot program is that the focus is on Westfield’s school buses that are used for sports and field trips. When these buses take students out of town, they travel at high speeds on the interstates — and in the company of other big vehicles, like semi-trucks.

It’s easy to think of seat belts on school buses as an all-or-nothing proposition, but when funding is tight, targeting buses that take on highway trips could be an effective approach. (Westfield's six buses in the pilot program will also run regular home-to-school routes.)

Nick Verhoff, director of business and operations for Westfield Washington Schools, told me that the district has been fortunate to not have any serious injuries on its school buses.

“We’ve never had any safety issues on our buses,” Verhoff said, noting that the seat belt project is “not in reaction to some accident.”

He told me frankly that the district has concerns about seat belts on school buses, such as whether the students will stay buckled, the potential for liability for the driver, and how the belts will impact behavior on the bus.

Westfield will “see if those [concerns] could be worked out,” Verhoff said. “We want to at least have some kind of data that we have accumulated on our own that shows what seat belts can and can’t do.”

There is no requirement for seat belts on large school buses in Indiana (although state legislators are considering a bill that would mandate them), which is another interesting aspect of Westfield Washington Schools’ pilot program.

Seat belts on school buses is a topic that consistently draws a list of concerns from many people who are involved in pupil transportation. Westfield district officials share some of those concerns, but they are taking a proactive step to test out the belts for themselves.

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