The fatal school bus crash in Houston in September has added kindling to the already hot debate about whether seat belts should be required in school buses.
The tragic crash of the Houston Independent School District Bus on Sept. 16, an incident very similar to the 2006 crash in Huntsville, Alabama, created a perfect storm of activity that has involved everyone from lawmakers to federal agencies to transportation professionals looking to maintain public trust in the Big Yellow Bus. A cruel irony is that the bus initially was struck by a car driven by an HISD teacher.
Since, school bus manufacturers have reported a considerable spike in inquiries from school districts on the cost of installing seat belts in new bus orders, with some even asking about the cost of retrofitting their current buses. But that is an expensive proposition.
“There’s been a flurry of requests for information on seat belts since the accident happened,” said Jack Connell, general manager of Longhorn Bus Sales. “There is a lot going on. New orders with seat belts have accelerated. They want them in there, it’s politically correct. The question is making sure kids use them.”
Connell said that the Texas Association of Pupil Transportation’s online chat room has been buzzing with questions to vendors about seat belts. “There were all kinds of questions on what would be the cost to upgrade the existing orders with seat belts. It’s hard to say what it would cost. The three-point seat belt is very expensive.”
Connell, whose company sold the 1999 model-year, 47-passenger bus involved in the crash to HISD, said although the bus was equipped with lap belts, they are ⎛ only good if they are used. The state passed a law in 2010 requiring three-point belts, but only if the legislature funds districts, which it only did that first legislative year to the tune of $10 million. But in reality only 4 percent of that was disbursed, according to the Houston Chronicle, with the remainder returned to state coffers. No more funds have been appropriated since.
“The problem with seat belts is the kids don’t wear them,” Connell said. “That’s just the way it is. The smaller kids will wear them, but not the older ones.”
Justina Morosin, vice president of North American Sales for IC Bus, said the Lisle, Illinois-based manufacturer is definitely seeing a spike in inquiries, especially for the three-point belt. “This has been interesting because we’ve had a number of incidences where customers have shown interest in adding lap belts and three-point belts in our orders,” Morosin added. “Some of this is due to anything they see in the news in regards to bus crashes and fatalities. We see that from school districts involved in the crashes or from the media. We see increased activity and talk regarding seat belts.”
Rick Smith, OEM marketing and sales manager for SynTec Seating Solutions, said student transporters are asking more questions about retrofitting current buses. “A lot of interest has been brought on by these accidents and it seems to be a knee-jerk reaction. We’re getting interests even from states that have not experienced an accident. There’s definitely been an uptick in people asking about retrofitting buses.”
Innovations in Seating Restraint Systems?
Depending upon who you ask, the current technology behind the structural integrity of the school bus seating and restraint system is sufficient when it is used properly by students. While there may be differences of opinion on some points, everyone agrees that while not perfect, the school bus remains the safest form of travel to and from school for students.
Still, new questions about seat belts, namely three-point systems, are seemingly on the rise. Widescale reports from California, the first state to require lap-shoulder belts in all school buses, indicate the additional purchase cost has not been a detriment. But as that’s not the case in Texas, state Sen. Sylvia Garcia has asked Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick to charge an education committee to study the current law, cost and funding sources.
Further miring the issue, the state’s 2007 law required that school districts report crash data, but few have done so, according to the consumer protection group TexasWatch.
In the meantime, Trace Heider, bus parts manager for Longhorn, said HISD is looking to retrofit buses they already have placed on current order and they’re looking at the three-point seat belts. He said 90 percent of the information requests are for the three-point seat belt. “We’ve been hearing from districts in Central Texas and from the surrounding districts in the Houston area,” Heider said. “School districts are issuing addendums to their bids asking for quotes with seat belts and without seat belts.”
Charles Vits, market development manager for IMMI/SafeGuard, said research on improving the seat structural integrity is ongoing and not a result of the SBMTC petition to NHTSA. “The structural integrity of today’s seats with lap-shoulder belts is far superior to any previous generation of seats because of the demands of FMVSS 210 and FMVSS 222 put on them,” Vits said. “However, all seat manufacturers are always looking for ways to improve manufacturability, and add features that are desirable by the end user.”
Tony Everett, chief operations officer at HSM Transportation Solutions, agreed. He added that safety is not a movement, but a way of life. “It is a daily grind to continually improve the products and the performance of those products,” Everett said. “What you see today you won’t see tomorrow.”
Everett hinted that he expects the cost of products to stabilize and come down as technology advances. “As technology goes up the amount of participation causes the volume to increase and the price to come down,” he explained. “If we continue to drop the price of these products, the price argument is going to get harder and harder to make. The school bus is the safest form of transportation. When it comes to safety, there is a lot of collaboration among the core members of this industry.”