When a school bus overturned outside St. Louis last Monday, seriously injuring one student and the bus driver, Marla Wilcox reacted like many local parents.
“It caused fear, of course,” she said. “I have a kid that rides the school bus.”
The accident renewed concerns about school bus safety, including whether seat belts should be required on school buses.
In Columbia, most buses do not have seat belts. First Student Inc., which transports children in the Columbia School District, has 136 buses that run 8,000 students per day to the local schools. Only buses that carry special-needs children or preschool-age children who need booster seats come equipped with harnesses or other restraining belts, said Blake Tekotte, Coordinator of Transportation for the Columbia School District.
All school bus accidents are reported to Tekotte, and in 2003, he only heard about minor situations.
“This year, there’s been some fender benders, but no real serious accidents,” Tekotte said.
Before this year, there have been a couple of accidents involving minor injuries, he said, but mostly he’s gotten reports of minor mishaps, such as buses hitting mailboxes or clipping cars.
He said there are no plans to put seat belts in buses.
“What I’ve read and seen in research and in testing, kids are safer without seat belts,” Tekotte said.
The most recent federal research is a four-year study conducted by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and submitted to Congress in May 2002. The study found that during the past 11 years, school buses have averaged about 26,000 crashes and 10 deaths each year. According to the research, children are eight times safer riding in school buses than in cars.
Other studies have mirrored these findings. The School Bus Information Council found that school buses have been responsible for fewer passenger deaths than cars, airlines or trains.
The compartmentalization system makes a difference. According to the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, today’s school buses are designed with wider, thicker, padded high-back seats that cushion riders during an accident.
The Traffic Safety study noted that adding seat belts to buses would do little, if any good. In fact, research showed that if buses were equipped with shoulder/lap belts, about one life a year would be saved. The belts would add $40 to $50 per seating position for each new bus, and capacity would decrease by 17 percent.
But advocates for seat belts, such as the National Coalition for School Bus Safety, say that seatbelts will enhance compartmentalization, especially in side-impact crashes and rollovers. In addition, requiring children to use belts would reinforce a life-saving habit and create fewer distractions for the driver.
A proposal to require seat belts came before the Missouri legislature in 1995, but it didn’t pass the Motor Vehicle and Traffic Regulation Committee.
Even if seat belts were used, Tekotte questioned whether requiring their use would be enforceable.
“The logistics of it, how do you force kids to use them?” he said.
Wilcox echoed this opinion. The mother of a 13-year-old said she thought it might be easier to get younger children to buckle up.
“I don’t know that kids who are 13 would put on their seat belts,” she said.
Wilcox is concerned with other aspects of bus safety. She said the buses are top-heavy and hold too many students to be safe. For her, seat belts aren’t as important as good bus drivers.
“It’s up to the person driving to maintain control,” she said.