School bus safety; NTSB seat belt ruling sparks national debate

ERIN O’NEILL The Marietta Times Darrell Prim, facilities and transportation manager for Marietta City Schools, shows a 4-point harness system already currently in use on some Marietta buses for preschool students. Not all the seats on the bus have this system, just the first couple of rows.

Every day across the country, nearly 500,000 buses carry more than 25 million students to and from school and activities, according to the National Transportation Safety Board. Now the NTSB is changing its recommendation in favor of 3-point seatbelts, a decision that continues to be debated.

Chairman Robert Sumwalt said the board’s last recommendation about school seatbelts, made in 2013, was that states consider them, which he called “sort of weak.”

He said it’s time for the agency to take a hard stance.

“I think that that’s the right stance, and I feel like we as an agency have tiptoed around that for a long time,” Sumwalt said.

Eight states already require some kind of seatbelts on larger school buses, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Ohio is not one of those and transportation representatives from area schools agree that each safety situation is different. Most local school buses do not have seatbelts.

“We regularly do evacuation drills and can safely remove all students in 35 to 45 seconds. Seatbelts add a significant amount of time to that,” said Dave Dye, transportation director for the Warren Local school district.

The NTSB’s recommendations are contained in a report on two deadly school bus crashes in November 2016, one in Chattanooga, Tenn., and the other in Baltimore. Regarding the Chattanooga accident, in which six school children died, the board concluded that the lack of lap-shoulder seatbelts contributed to the severity of the crash.

“We actually had a serious accident with one of the buses in our district in January,” said Dye, who noted that only some of their buses are equipped with seatbelts for special student needs. “The bus was rear-ended by a large SUV and some students had only minor injuries…these buses are made to take impact. The seats are padded in such a way to protect the children.”

Both Dye and Marietta City Schools facilities and transportation manager Darrell Prim said the state requires rigorous training for drivers and continual inspection of the fleet.

“I’m on the fence about seatbelts on buses,” Prim said. “I see the good and I see the bad. God forbid a rollover happens. Some kids will get bumps and bruises with no seatbelts, but if you roll over and you’re in a creek or along the river, or there’s a fire, the driver is going to have to cut kids out of these seats.”

Parents said they’re alson on the fence.

“I’m torn,” said Lisa Bammerlin, of Devola, who has a daughter who will be going into sixth grade at Marietta Middle School next year and a son who will be at freshman at Marietta High School. Both will be riding the bus. “For minor accidents, yes. But in bigger ones and in case of fire, how do you make sure everyone is unbuckled and out safely?”

For Shalanda Curtis, mother of a soon-to-be third-grader at Washington Elementary, seatbelts would help ease some of her worry.

“My feelings are, if we are required by law to wear seatbelts in cars, why shouldn’t kids on buses? My daughter rides a bus daily, for 45 minutes to an hour. Living on Cisler Drive, during the winter months it terrifies me,” she said. “I would have a little more peace of mind knowing she was a little safer with a seatbelt on.”

School buses use technology called compartmentalization–a passive occupant protection system, according to the NTSB. School bus seats, made with an energy-absorbing steel inner structure and high, padded seat backs, are secured to the school bus floor. Students are protected within the seating compartment much like eggs in a carton.

The NTSB’s report investigated school bus crashes in which children were seriously injured or killed and determined that they were typically side-impact crashes or high-speed rollovers. In these accidents, compartmentalization was not enough to prevent all injuries; for some of the children involved, a seatbelt could have lessened their injuries or even saved their lives.

“This is an idea that circles around about once a year and there are definitely pros and cons for adding seatbelts to school buses,” commented Tony Dunn, superintendent of Belpre City Schools. “When thinking about this issue, it is important to keep in mind that yellow school buses are some of the safest vehicles on the roads. They are designed to protect passengers in the case of crashes and have multiple escape routes should the passengers and driver need to evacuate quickly. When a bus is involved in a crash, it is not usual that the passengers on the bus are injured; it is usually the driver and passengers in the other vehicle that suffer the worst consequences.”

Prim said that some of Marietta’s fleet, particularly the buses that carry preschool children, are equipped with 4-point harness systems, much like a car seat. Seats on the buses that transport special needs students are equipped with lap and shoulder belts.

“It would be costly to retrofit all these buses but newer buses are definitely going to cost more if they require them all to have seatbelts,” Prim said, adding that the district has 15 regular route buses and a few spare, plus two special needs buses. “These seats (with harnesses) are about $400. We have 27 seats in a school bus. That’s going to cost us between $12,000 and $15,000 (including labor) to retrofit a school bus. I just paid $102,000 to replace bus 6 but I look at that cost going up between $8,000 and $10,000.”

Dunn agreed that it would be costly to retrofit the buses in his district but it’s probably a discussion that should be had.

“(Cost) should not really be a discussion when it comes to safety, but it is a reality of which we all should be aware,” he said. “Funding for that type of work would need to come from local communities, in my opinion, because funding for transportation from the state level has been cut to levels that don’t even come close to covering our transportation costs.”

The Associated Press contributed.

At a glance

Pupil transportation regulations

¯ All school transportation in Ohio must comply with the Ohio Pupil Transportation Operation and Safety Rules, which are comprised of revised code and administrative rule. This requirement is based on Ohio Revised Code (RC) 4511.76.

Helpful links

¯ https://www.ohioschoolboards.org/state-rules-and-regulations

¯ http://education.ohio.gov/Topics/Finance-and-Funding/School-Transportation

¯ https://www.ntsb.gov/safety/Pages/schoolbuses.aspx

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