In the debate on whether seat belts are a good fit for large school buses, it seems that the best insight comes from those who actually have experience with the restraints in their fleet.

Casey Cypert is one such person. As director of operations at Buellton (Calif.) Union School District (USD), Cypert has observed the effects of lap-shoulder belts on the district’s route bus for the past five years.

I hit the road in November to visit Buellton USD and another district in Santa Barbara County, Goleta USD. Both had interesting perspectives to share about their fleets and the environments in which they operate.

Goleta USD has 21 school buses — including some new clean diesel units and two that run on compressed natural gas. The city, in between Santa Barbara and its University of California campus, is in a busy area, so traffic is a key issue for the district’s bus operation.

Buellton USD has two buses, one of which runs a daily route to transport about 70 students. The district, in the bucolic Santa Ynez Valley, has had a big problem with stop-arm running, but local police have been cracking down on it recently.

Belt mandate
California has required lap-shoulder belts on new large school buses since 2005. (The same requirement went into effect for small school buses in 2004.)

Buellton USD bus passengers, the oldest of whom are in eighth grade, began buckling up when the district acquired a 2008 Type D school bus (with the help of a replacement grant of about $100,000). The 79-passenger unit is equipped with three lap-shoulder belts per seat.

Cypert told me that the belts have been “a real positive,” particularly in their impact on student management. He said that having the students buckled up “solves 80 to 90% of problems” related to behavior.

Just for the sake of discussion, I noted a concern that I hear often in the industry: that kids will use the seat belt buckles as weapons. Cypert and bus driver Miguel Garcia said that this isn’t happening. The lap-shoulder belts retract into the seat, so they can’t be swung around like a lap-only belt could.

Another common question: Will the students actually buckle up? They do at Buellton USD. According to Cypert, training is the key. He said that Garcia has been diligent in training and reminding his passengers to wear their seat belts.

Personal experience
At Goleta USD, I got a chance to ride in a school bus with lap-shoulder belts. I was surprised by how easily the shoulder strap could be adjusted to fit me — and how comfortable it was to wear it.

The best part of the experience was that I was sitting next to my 6-year-old son, Tommy. (My wife homeschools our two boys, so they all came along as a field trip.)

When we get in our own vehicles, Tommy is quick to make sure that we’re all wearing our seat belts before the car even starts. With that in mind, it was gratifying to see him board a school bus — the safest vehicle for transporting students — and still be able to buckle up.

My thanks to the fine folks I met with at Goleta USD — Robert Matheny, Jill Walker and Martin Tejeda — and at Buellton USD — Cypert and Garcia — for sharing their time and experiences with us.