The good news:
School buses are a safe way for our kids to get to school. They are big and yellow and have flashing lights and fold out stop signs and amazing drivers,all which help to prevent accidents. They have very positive effects on the environment and traffic congestion by keeping hundreds of family cars off the roads during go-to-school time. When there is an accident, the bus's size helps to mitigate injury because the kids are sitting up higher than most cars and small trucks, this places kids up and away from the impact. The seats they sit in have high backs with energy absorbing foam, this feature is called compartmentalization. Compartmentalization works kind of like an egg carton by giving kids a cushiony, energy absorbing safe zone. This feature works well in minor, lower speed, frontal and rear impact accidents, and when kids are sitting in their seats.
The bad news:
School buses in Pennsylvania don't have lap and shoulder seat belts. Accidents involving high speed, lateral impact, roll over or impact with fixed objects/large mass vehicles put our kids are at risk. During these severe accidents our kids are thrown from their seats rendering the safety feature, compartmentalization, useless. Children have died or sustained severe head, neck or back injuries when they are ejected from the bus or just simply thrown around the bus. The National Transportation Safety Board (these are the federal folks that investigate all sorts of transportation safety issues-like highway, airplane, boat accidents) has been recommending seat belts on school buses since 1999. Their extensive research shows that compartmentalization does not provide adequate protection in accidents in which occupants are thrown from their seats. They recommend compartmentalization be paired with lap and shoulder restraints (seat belts). Pennsylvania can not continue to ignore this information. Seat belts are being used successfully in several states. If they can do it, so can Pennsylvania. New York has had seat belts in their buses since the 1980's! The 1980's!!! New Jersey, Florida, Louisiana, Texas and California also have school bus seat belts laws.
The bottom line:
School buses have some great qualities but seat belts would improve their safety during severe accidents. Seat belts on school buses is a common sense, affordable, highly recommended and proven safety feature that our kids should have access to.
Some more good news:
There is a Senate Bill (SB122) currently in the transportation committee that mandates seat belts on school buses. This Bill will likely die in committee unless strong community support is shown. We need to write to our local legislators and transportation committee members and let them know that this is important and we want them to support this Bill..
So, how much is this going to cost the tax payers?
Well, a school bus with seat belts is gonna run about $97,000.
I spoke with a nice sales guy in Harrisburg (Rohrer Bus Sales www.rohrerbussales.com) and he told me that a 72 passenger bus without seat belts is $85,000. Now stay with me, this is important: That $85,000 bus can seat 72 kids with 13 inches of "rump room" per kid. Now get a ruler out and measure your kid's rump. My 9 year old, 65 lb, 4th grader has an 11 inch rump, My 6 year old, 55lb, 1st grader has a 9 inch rump. I don't think these buses are really toting around 72 kids because the kids that are bigger have bigger rumps and the seats just can't accomodate that. Now, when seat belts are installed there is some capacity loss because the seats now accomadate a luxurious 15 inch rump space per kid. So, that 72 passenger bus is now a 60 passenger bus. Anti-seat belts on school bus folks will say that not only is the cost of seat belts a concern, the loss of capacity will force cash strapped districts to buy more buses. That is true only if these buses are actually carrying 72 passengers. My Dad is a school bus driver and his route involved picking up 40 kids.
A school bus stays in service for about 10-15 years. For the sake of easy math let's assume a 12 year life span. The additional cost of seat belts is $12,000. That's $1000/year. When you break that down to cost/student/year it's $16.60. That works out to be 4 cents per student/ride/year.
If there is an accident and a kid on the bus is not wearing a seat belt and he gets hurt is the bus driver going to be held responsible?
The states that have school bus seat belt legislation (New York, New Jersey, Florida, Louisiana, Texas and California) have protection from litigation for school bus drivers built into their laws.
What if the bus rolls over onto its roof? The kids are going to be hanging upside down. How's the bus driver going to get them all down? What if the bus driver is hurt and can't help any of them?
Well, that isn't a pretty picture. A bunch of kids hanging upside down, crying and screaming. But, the good thing is they are crying and screaming! They survived and have only minor injuries!
The even more horrific alternative is a roll over without seat belts. The kids would be thrown around the bus-some ejected. Some might die, others may have spinal cord injuries, concussions, amputations, teeth knocked out.
How are kids going to get out of the bus in the event of an accident? Won't the seat belts make evacuation slower? What if the bus is on fire?
Kids that are wearing seat belts tend to not have severe injuries and will be able to unbuckle and evacuate themselves.
What if the bus crashes into a body of water and the bus is submerged?
Okay, you have me there. Lots of kids are likely going to die in this senerio. Seat belts could make getting out even harder. Fortunately, this doesn't happen vary often. The last time a school bus crashed into water and kids died was in 1989. It was a horrible, 21 high school students died. No seat belts in that bus.
What if kids don't wear them? Wreck them? Use them to hit other kids?
Education and discipline. At the beginning of the school year families will be introduced to the new buses. They will learn how to use the seat belts and the other safety rules of the bus. It is important that families reinforce the rules at home. The bus driver has a big job already, parents must help by putting their kids on the bus prepared to follow the rules. Kids that don't follow the safety rules will not be permitted to ride the bus. The school bus is no place for fooling around. We need to take this seriously and enforce the rules uniformly.