News - Scol Buses/Seat Belts
- CAROL MCGRAW ( mailto:carol.mcgraw@... )
THE GAZETTE, COLORADO
It's probably the first thing most parents tell their kids when they
get in a car.
But the lesson is meaningless once those children get on a school bus.
Few buses in the nation * Pikes Peak area included * are equipped with
seat belts, an issue driven home Oct. 23 when five Harrison School
District 2 students were injured after their 65-passenger bus violently
hit a dip in the road.
It may seem counterintuitive: As safety officials hammer home the
message that seat belts save lives, there are few regulations requiring
seat belts in school buses. And most transportation officials say they
believe that none are needed, at least in larger buses.
Studies show that buckling up in a large bus is more harmful than going
without, said Greta Bleau, senior transportation consultant for the
Colorado Department of Education. If that sounds like faulty logic,
that's because bus safety is a complicated science, experts say.
Large school buses are heavier and distribute crash forces differently
than do smaller buses and passenger cars. Seat safety in the larger
buses centers on something called compartmentalization.
"Think of an egg in an egg carton," said Bill Bair, director of
transportation for Colorado Springs School District 11.
When children in a large bus are flung forward, they hit the padded
seats in front of them, and the seats flex.
"The child rides down the crash forces and then the seat goes back into
an upright position and puts them back into the seat they were sitting
in," Bleau said.
But to make all this work, the kids have to be in their seats. If they
are standing up or on their knees, all bets are off.
"We urge parents to strongly reinforce the bus driver's request to have
kids sit flat on their bottoms with their back against the seat," Bleau
said. "If you are driving a 40-foot-long vehicle it's difficult to
police 60 kids."
Another concern about restraints, she said, is that the force of an
impact would be directed to the child's lap and chest, and could cause
Bair said another reason to keep large buses seat belt free is the need
for a quick escape.
"Throughout the United States every year there are buses that catch
fire," Bair said. "If you get a group of kindergartners that don't know
how to get out of their belts, it could be a nightmare."
Small buses are another matter. The federal government recently
announced that as of 2011, lap and shoulder straps will be required on
new smaller buses that weigh less than 10,000 pounds * a size often used
to transport special education students.
The smaller buses don't absorb shock as well as larger buses, and the
seats that children would be flung against are not flexible. And unlike
larger buses, it is easier to reach kids who are trapped in the smaller
But school districts will not have to retrofit their older small buses,
the federal guidelines say.
Even if school districts thought it would be wise to retrofit the
larger buses, they'd have to consider the financial aspect.
Transportation experts estimate that the cost of retrofitting a bus with
seat belts costs from $2,700 to $11,000 for a 66-to 78-passenger bus,
depending on what needs to be done, according to School Transportation
News. Maintaining, repairing and replacing damaged belts can add $100 to
$500 per bus in maintenance costs annually.
And there are other issues involved with retrofitting. It would require
taking out all the seats and bolts, which could affect safety if it
weren't done just right, said Hal Garland, Lewis-Palmer School District
38 director of transportation.
It could also affect manufacturers' warranties.
Additional safeguards are in place without seat belts, transportation
officials say. Buses are steel reinforced, for example, and there are
regulations regarding seat heights in new buses of all sizes. And in
Colorado, used buses can be purchased only from certain certified
sellers who have products that meet state standards, Bleau said.
Transportation officials say they don't believe seat belts would make
much of a difference anyway. National Transportation Safety Board
studies found that school bus seat belts would not have prevented most
serious injuries and fatalities. The board concluded that children are
at greater risk of being killed in a school bus loading zone, and safety
efforts should be directed that way.
More telling, perhaps, is that in Colorado, no child has been killed in
a school bus crash since 1989.
"The yellow school bus is the safest form of transportation there is on
the road today," Bair said.
BUS SAFETY BY THE NUMBERS
An average of six children die yearly in bus crashes nationwide.
About 450,000 school buses travel 4.3 billion miles to transport 23.5
million children each year in the U.S..
The worst fatal incident on a Colorado school bus took place Dec. 14,
1961. Twenty children were killed when a train traveling 79 mph slammed
into A bus.
The last fatal school bus crash took place on an activity trip on June
Of the 794,026 students in Colorado, 322,522 - about 41 percent - were
transported by bus in the 2006-2007 school year.
Number of school buses in Colorado: 6,500.
Source: Colorado Department of Education, National Highway Traffic
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- Monday's rollover bus accident in Winchester points to what experts say is a big safety problem for our children.
It's a problem they say could be fixed -- if there were seat belts on school buses.
The bus ran off the road on the way to school and flipp over onto its side. About 25 children were transported to a local hospital.
But NewsChannel 5's chief investigative reporter, Phil Williams, has discovered that school buses were just not designed to protect against such rollovers.
School bus safety is built around a concept called compartmentalization. That's the padded seats behind your child and in front of your child -- which works great if the bus crashes into another vehicle.
But test video, obtained by NewsChannel 5 Investigates, shows exactly what happens in the case of a rollover. The test dummies are thrown around like clothes in a dryer.
And video from a real-life school bus accident shows just how violent a rollover crash can be.
Yet, federal safety regulators have been suggesting for a decade that buses could be made even safer.
"Current compartmentalization is incomplete in that it does not protect school bus passengers during lateral impacts with vehicles of large mass and in rollovers," the National Transportation Safety Board wrote in 1999.
Seat belt developer James Johnson said it's a serious problem.
"Rollovers are very common in accidents where children are hurt," Johnson first told NewsChannel 5 Investigates four years ago. "So while they may represent a small number of the the accidents across the country, when they do happen, children can get hurt. That's when you'll find injuries and fatalities."
During the course of our investigation, we caught up with one private school where lap and shoulder belts are required to protect children in such accidents -- and parents were highly supportive.
But neither federal nor state governments have required them.
Skeptics say such serious crashes just don't occur often enough to be worth the money.
So it's left up to each school system to decide if they want them.
Source: TV Station/Winchester
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