RENO, Nev. - A breakout session during the STN EXPO featured three transportation directors who shared their experiences with installing lap-shoulder seatbelts on school buses in their districts and responded to attendee questions and concerns.
The "Real-World Experiences With Seatbelts" workshop was held on Sunday at the STN EXPO. The panelists were Thomas Cohn, transportation manager for Helena Public Schools in Montana; Charlie Ott, transportation director for Fremont Unified School District in California; and Cindy Steigerwald, director of transportation and safety for Mukilteo School District in Washington.
The panelists first addressed compartmentalization, which opponents of seat belts often point out already exists as the best way to keep kids safe on the bus. Steigerwald pointed out that, in reality, this only works effectively in frontal and rear collisions, but not in side-impacts or rollovers. In addition, Cohn pointed out that students who are not sitting correctly within their seat compartments can be thrown around the bus during a collision and hit each other or other objects.
Related: The History of Seatbelt Development
There were various reasons for the decision to install seat belts on school buses for which the panelists were responsible. For instance, in California it was mandated, while Cohn said that 99 percent of parents in his Montana district wanted them installed. All three of the panelists agreed that it was not a question of “if” seat belts would come to school buses, but “when.” The federal government has already voiced its opinion that all school buses should have the three-point occupant restraints and states like Nevada have recently passed laws with other states increasing legislation, said Steigerwald, so don’t wait till they are mandated; start planning now to help mitigate the expenses.
Funding was a concern voiced by some of those in attendance. Ott said he understood the apprehension that student capacity might be affected by lap-shoulder belts and the concern that districts might need to purchase more buses and hire more drivers as a result. However, he went on, you can’t put a price on safety and you can’t attach numbers to children’s lives, especially if one of those children may be your own.
Once lap-shoulder seat belts are installed on buses the next crucial thing to tackle is training, for bus drivers and kids alike. Cohn said he has found there was not much of a ridership decrease as a result, but more younger students were riding the bus because parents felt better about their safety. He added that there needs to be a community buy-in to the idea, but at the same time it needs to be established as an enforceable policy.
“Kids need to do it or they won’t ride; drivers need to enforce it or they don’t drive.” he said.
Ott mentioned that discipline issues went down in his district because the kids are forced to sit facing forward. He also observed that young kids readily buckled up because it was a learned behavior from riding in their parents’ car, but older students who’d been in the school system longer were not used to the seat belts and were more defiant.
Attendees also raised the concern that lap-shoulder seat belts on school buses would prevent kids from evacuating in the event of a rollover collision or a fire, and that the latter have become so common that they first need to see hard data on evacuation drills and time it takes to get students off buses with seat belts versus those without. Steigerwald responded that the bus driver isn’t the only one responsible for getting kids off the bus safely and that the students should be trained to help each other. Ott said that students transporters would like to plan for every situation but they are often unable to. But with proper driver training and tools like seat belt cutters, he said all passengers can be made as safe as possible.
Cohn added that seat belts aren’t the problem—chokepoints in the bus aisles during evacuation are, as panic drives students to clog the front entrance door and the rear emergency exit. On the other hand, he said, without seat belts, students could be lying on the floor injured and further complicating evacuation.
Lastly, different experiences with cutting tools for seat belts were discussed. The panelists all said they use one cutter per bus to be used by the driver, but they agreed with the audience that a discussion should begin on how many cutters are considered adequate per bus and if students should also be trained to help use them if needed. An attendee with a Head Start agency said that he has an eight-to-one ratio of students to cutters, and that it’s worth the additional cost in comparison to a lawsuit for not having proper safety equipment. Another attendee mentioned that cutters are part of the operation's driver pre-trip checklist.