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Accident Raises Issue of Seat Belts For School Buses

May 10, 2005 | AP

After onlookers scrambled to pull injured children from a school bus involved in a fatal crash near Kansas City, the question came up time and again: Why aren't seat belts required on school buses?

Two people in cars were killed Monday morning in Liberty, Mo., when a school bus carrying more than 50 children crashed into their vehicles. Twenty-three children were hurt. Two remained in critical condition Tuesday.

The grade schoolers were tossed from their seats, suffering injuries ranging from bumps and bruises to broken bones and internal damage. Vickie Whattoff, a grocery store worker who rushed to help the children, wondered if some of the injuries could have been prevented if the bus had seat belts.

"I just don't understand," she said.

But the federal agency that oversees school bus safety cites one study after another showing that seat belts are unlikely to help in a serious bus accident.

"We've got close to a half-million buses on the highway driving four-and-a-half billion miles a year, and we have fewer than seven school passenger fatalities nationwide," said Rae Tyson, spokesman for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. "It's probably close to eight times safer riding on a school bus than it is riding in a passenger car."

Tyson said it is difficult to design shoulder-lap belts to fit children of all sizes. He noted that the same bus that takes kindergartners to school in the morning may transport high schoolers later in the day. Also difficult is persuading 40 or 50 rambunctious kids to wear their belts properly.

Meanwhile, Tyson said, school buses are designed to lessen impact. In a wreck, a process called compartmentalization provides a safety "cocoon" for children. Seat backs are cushioned and designed to give upon impact, softening the blow if a child is thrown forward.

Three states - New York, New Jersey and Florida require seat belts on new full-sized buses. Between 300 and 400 other school districts nationwide require seat belts even though their states don't.

It isn't cheap. The cost of fitting a full-sized school bus is $1,500 to $1,800. And if shoulder-lap belts are installed, only two kids fit on a bench instead of three, meaning additional buses may be needed.

Scott Taveau, superintendent of the Liberty School District, said it was too early to know if belts would have helped in Monday's accident. He wasn't sure if the district would consider seat belts for its buses.

The National Coalition for School Bus Safety has long called for seat belts. Shoulder restraints are preferred, but lap belts would be better than nothing, said Alan Ross, a Connecticut dentist who leads the coalition.

"These kids on the bus would have been a lot better of if they had been restrained instead of bouncing around like a pinball," Ross said. "Compartmentalization is grossly inadequate."

The National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services said it supports lap-shoulder belts for school buses, but the second-best choice is no belt at all. Lap belts without a shoulder harness tend to cause even greater injuries, according to the organization that oversees state directors of public school bus services.

"Every study looked at repeatedly says compartmentalization works and works well, but it's not perfect," said Charlie Gauthier, executive director of the association. "The only way to make it better is with lap-shoulder belts."

Ross worries that the lack of seat belts on school buses sends a bad message to children, a message he believes shows up in teen driving death statistics.

"We give them an inappropriate mixed message as children. We tell them it's important to buckle up, then they don't have to on the bus. They're totally confused," he said.

In April, one child was killed and 14 injured when a bus carrying grade schoolers collided with a trash truck in Arlington, Va.

In November, a freshman at Royal Palm Beach High School in Florida died when her bus collided with a pickup truck and rolled. Diana Kautz was ejected from the bus.

The most recent fatality involving a school bus passenger in Missouri was in February 2004 in Bowling Green, about 100 miles north of St. Louis. A school bus was traveling at highway speed when it rear-ended a stopped asphalt truck, killing a ninth-grade girl and a highway worker.

In October 2003, a tractor-trailer collided with a school bus near Shields, Kan., in the western part of the state, killing a 6-year-old boy.

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