Friday, May 25, 2012

Botetourt school bus crash raises seat belt question

Larger buses tend not to have them, because of the dynamics of large-vehicle collisions.

Federal and state rules don't require school buses like the one that crashed Wednesday in Botetourt County to have seat belts installed, but school transportation experts say that doesn't necessarily mean such buses are dangerous.

More than a dozen students were sent to Roanoke-area hospitals following the morning wreck in which authorities say a school bus driver hit a ditch and rolled the bus onto its roof. All of the injured had been released from hospitals by Wednesday afternoon. The bus driver, Mary Elizabeth Esque, 35, of Eagle Rock, was charged with reckless driving.

Botetourt County schools Superintendent Tony Brads said the school system's larger buses — like the 2005 Blue Bird school bus involved in Wednesday's crash — are not equipped with passenger seat belts. The division's smaller buses — those used for special education and special needs — have lap-shoulder harnesses as required by law.

Brads said the school system does not have plans to install seat belts on the large buses in its fleet.

"We routinely monitor national, state and regional feedback on this topic," Brads said. "From what we currently see and hear, the pros continue to outweigh the cons regarding not adding seat belts on our larger buses."

Virginia legislators have struck down bills several times in the past two decades that would have mandated seat belt use in school buses. State law requires school bus drivers to wear a seat belt.

Federal regulations specify how large the seats in school buses must be, in addition to what kind of padding must be used and how far apart seating benches must be placed. The rules are designed to create a system of "compartmentalization" that provides a protective envelope for passengers.

On average every year, six school-age children die in school bus crashes as passengers, according to data compiled by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, a federal agency that establishes motor vehicle safety standards. When compared to the more than 42,000 people killed in traffic crashes on U.S. roads every year, the federal agency says school buses — seat belts or no — are one of the safest modes of transportation.

Not everyone agrees with NHTSA, though. Chief among the dissenters: the National Transportation Safety Board, which says recently revised NHTSA standards for school bus safety don't address rollover crashes like the one in Botetourt County.

Both federal agencies agree that large school buses — those over 10,000 pounds — are heavier and fare differently in crashes than passenger vehicles. The forces experienced by children on those school buses are less than those experienced by occupants of passenger cars, small trucks or vans, studies have shown.

Smaller school buses, like those commonly used for special education and preschool programs, experience forces closer to those of passenger vehicles and must have lap-shoulder seat belts for passengers.

Just four states have passed legislation requiring seat belts on standard school buses. The federal government mandates that if localities voluntarily opt to install harnesses, they must follow certain standards.

When NHTSA updated those standards in 2008, the safety board criticized the revisions, saying they would force localities "to choose between economic concerns and passenger safety."

A 2001 Virginia Department of Planning and Budget fiscal impact statement estimated the cost to retrofit a school bus with lap-shoulder seat belts to be $8,800. The study estimated it would add $1,200 to $1,500 to the cost of a new bus.

Forcing localities to pay for seat belt upgrades could mean those jurisdictions wouldn't have enough money to purchase the buses they need to meet capacity, said Rachel McCleery, a spokeswoman for the National School Transportation Association, an Alexandria-based lobbying group that represents more than 100 private school bus contractors. Students would have to take alternate modes of transportation that are statistically more dangerous, like riding in passenger cars with teens, she said.

The National School Transportation Association's list of members includes Mountain Valley Transportation, which manages transportation for Roanoke City Public Schools. Mountain Valley's large buses aren't equipped with seat belts, a representative said. Neither are Roanoke County buses, said Roanoke County Deputy Superintendent Allen Journell.

Though she did not have specific statistics, McCreery said most of the bus companies represented by the school transportation group do not use seat belts in their large buses.

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