Eleven North Carolina school districts will track the use of lap-shoulder belts on their buses during the 2016-17 school year. Shown here is one of the buses that will be used by Washington County Schools.

Eleven North Carolina school districts will track the use of lap-shoulder belts on their buses during the 2016-17 school year. Shown here is one of the buses that will be used by Washington County Schools.

Some school districts in North Carolina will begin participating in a project that will track the use of lap-shoulder belts on school buses this fall.

The project is being implemented by the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction's Transportation Services, which will provide replacement school buses equipped with lap-shoulder belts for the 2016-17 school year to the 11 participating school districts.

A total of 82 buses — a mix of models from Thomas Built Buses, Blue Bird, and IC Bus — will be used in the project, said Derek Graham, North Carolina state pupil transportation director. Most of the buses have already been delivered, and the rest are expected to arrive this summer.

This project builds on results from a pilot project that the state conducted in 2003 to test the technology, using 13 school buses that were equipped with first-generation lap-shoulder belt seats. The buses were piloted in about 11 counties, Graham said.

What’s different about this project is that the technology has advanced significantly, he explained, and that in order to receive the buses, the school districts’ local boards of education had to agree to support and enforce the usage of the lap-shoulder belts.

“It will be an expectation that the students riding these buses will be using them,” Graham added. “That’s the goal.”

The new project also differs from the original on another significant point. The 2003 school buses utilized a 3/2 seating configuration, based on the available seat technology at the time, which resulted in a “staggered” off-center aisle and reduced elementary capacity, according to a Carolina Thomas news release. The new seats, provided by SynTec, IMMI, and HSM, are designed to seat two or three students with lap-shoulder belts.

“This flexible seating configuration will serve school districts very well by providing the same standard-width center aisle as current buses not equipped with seat belts without reducing capacity,” said Tom Schaaf, vice president and general manager of Carolina Thomas, in the news release.

The state covers the cost of the replacement buses, and the lap-shoulder belts are simply considered an additional option, Graham added.

The rollout plan is still in progress, but will likely include training on usage for bus drivers and students, and on repairs for technicians, as well as information on the implementation project for parents, and perhaps most importantly, Graham noted, for school administrators. Researchers at North Carolina State University’s Institute for Transportation Research and Education are providing technical assistance, contacting districts around the U.S., and looking at best practices and recommendations. 

In addition to safety benefits, Graham said that the use of lap-shoulder belts should improve student behavior, which could in turn help increase driver retention.

“The required-use policy is a key element in this project that we believe to be a real opportunity to improve student discipline and thereby help out our school bus drivers,” Graham said.

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