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School Bus Accident Renews Seat-Belt Debate

May 1, 2005 | Washington Post The bus accident in Arlington, Va., last week that killed two children has many people asking whether school buses should have seat belts (either lap belts or the lap-shoulder type, which safety experts prefer).

It may seem like a no-brainer to have seat belts, but only three states New York, New Jersey and Florida -require lap belts on newer large buses. In July, California will begin requiring lap-shoulder belts on all new school buses.

Why don't all states require seat belts on big buses?

Some safety analysts say they aren't necessary. Here is some of the research they mention:

Kids going to or from school are more likely to be hurt if they're riding in a car, biking or walking than if they are on a school bus.

School buses are made to be especially safe, with high backrests and padded benches. ''A school bus holds children like eggs in an egg carton,'' said Liz Neblett, of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in Washington.

Putting lap belts in buses might cause more injuries in a serious crash, a 2002 study found. As for the lap-shoulder belts, many kids don't wear them properly, which increases their risk of injury.

But some people say it doesn't make sense to have one set of rules for kids riding in cars (sit in booster seats, be in the back seat, be buckled up) and another set for kids on buses.

Here are the arguments for belts:

It couldn't hurt. ''We know from our car experience'' that belts save lives, said Alan Ross, president of the National Coalition for School Bus Safety in Torrington, Conn.

Belts are required on small school buses, why not large ones? Buses that weigh less than 10,000 pounds used to transport some preschoolers and special-education students are required to have either lap or lap-shoulder belts. (Bigger school buses weigh 23,000 pounds or more.)

Cost shouldn't be considered when it comes to safety. School-bus makers say that installing lap-shoulder belts costs as much as $7,000 per bus. There are some 450,000 school buses in the United States.

There is no doubt that school bus accidents are rare. Consider this: The number of kids who ride a school bus each day is equal to the total population of Florida, Massachusetts and Oregon, with few accidents. But that doesn't mean you shouldn't do all you can to be safe on the bus. So sit down and stay in your seat. Even if you aren't buckled up.

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