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School Bus Safety Frame of Mind

Important and timely conversations always take place at industry conferences, but none are as relevant as the ones on Saturday at the Kansas City Fire Academy.

The National Association for Pupil Transportation is hosting a special event that is designed to better understand the effect of school bus fires on student evacuations. I hope the scenarios using real students will represent what happens when the school buses are equipped with three-point, lap-shoulder seat belts, as well as how students with disabilities are affected.

It was but three weeks ago when 12-year-old Jazmine Villareal died after her Mesquite, Texas school bus rolled over and off a highway, then caught fire. Forty other students and the school bus driver evacuated safely. Jazmine, according to eyewitness accounts, was unresponsive and suspended in her lap-shoulder restraints, while the other students, including her sister, hurried off the vehicle. Three students did sustain injuries that required transport to a hospital.

When the news broke, I imagined a resounding “I told you so” emanating from opponents of school bus seat belts. While a couple of student transporters did voice their anti-seat belt opinions to us via Twitter, the rest of the industry has been surprisingly silent, at least publicly. I imagine plenty of feelings will be made known on Saturday.

The fear of some student transporters is how lap-shoulder belts might hinder evacuation. The what-if scenarios have included rollovers in submerged water and fires. National Transportation Safety Board investigations have concluded that the best way for students to survive the initial crash and be able to evacuate the school bus in the first place, is to buckle up.

There have been crashes and fires nationwide over the last several years that involved school buses equipped with lap-shoulder belts, and all students were able to walk away or suffered less serious injuries—or simply lived.

Except Jazmine, and except for Megan Klindt and her driver Donnie Hicks, who died in a school bus fire near Oakland, Iowa, last December.

The NTSB continues to investigate the Iowa incident and why the school bus caught fire, and why Klindt and Hendricks couldn’t get out in time. NTSB will also be working with local authorities to study the Mesquite crash and fire. NTSB investigator Michele Beckjord will certainly say what she can about fires and seat belts during her talks with NASDPTS and NAPT over the coming days.

What I imagine she might say is what I learned from other safety experts years ago, namely that some crashes are simply not survivable. The difference between life or death depends on so many factors. This is not to say that we should shrug our shoulders at the Texas or Iowa incidents. School bus safety can always be better, no matter how protected student passengers are. An average of six onboard fatalities each school year amid tens of billions of rides, after all, creates a better safety record than any other mode of ground or air transportation.

But that safety record alone does not make the school bus safe. More Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards have been developed for the school bus than for any other mode of transportation. They seek to remove the risk of fuel tanks exploding and the roof caving in, limit the intrusion of another vehicle or object into the passenger compartment, and displace crash forces, among dozens of other things.

What truly makes school buses safe are the people who drive them, and who, when available, monitor the students. School bus safety also relies on the oversight of operations and maintenance by state, school district and bus company leaders.

We cannot confuse training and oversight with the actual vehicle. Just as the industry is reminded at every turn to eliminate behaviors that result in risk and lead to crashes, injuries and fatalities, the industry should continue to strive and make the school bus safer.

Take the live school bus crash test conducted in August 2017 at the IMMI Center for Advanced Product Evaluation in Westfield, Indiana. Onboard video recorded during the controlled, 30-mph collision of a semi-truck into the right rear wheel of a conventional school bus, showed the impact and resulting clockwise, 45-degree rotation of the school bus. This not only ejected a larger percentile crash dummy that wasn’t wearing a lap-shoulder belt, but also threw about the other unrestrained dummies, which certainly would have equated to serious real-world injuries or worse. But the video also showed, that despite being buckled up, students can still be injured.

One crash dummy in particular which was seated against the window comes to mind. During the impact, the head makes repeated contact with the window or window frame. Experts I’ve spoken to have said those blows would certainly cause injury, and NTSB has been studying the effect of concussions in school bus crashes.

A perfect world would see all school buses equipped with side-curtain airbags to remove this risk, and while we’re at it, let’s add airbags deployed from the roof and turn the school bus into a bouncy castle. But it’s not a perfect world. Student transporters already have to beg, borrow and (hopefully not) steal to keep their operations running as it is.

But part of the conversation on Saturday, in my opinion, should be that the school bus, at its core, is an extremely well-engineered tube of steel and aluminum. While school buses look the same to the general public, we all know how far technologies inside them have come. This technology includes lap-shoulder belts. If they can afford GPS, high-definition cameras, LED lights, tablets and student tracking, routing solutions, and the latest emissions technology, can’t they afford three-point belts, too?

I hope discussions on Saturday and going forward also address students with disabilities. I shake my head every time a student transporter expresses concern about evacuating students who are wearing their lap-shoulder belts, yet doesn’t mention those with disabilities. We need to be even more concerned for students who have to ride in wheelchairs or be secured in vests or harnesses.

Lap-shoulder belts are a logical and relatively inexpensive solution to remove additional risk from school bus rides. Are they a perfect solution? No. Is there much to figure out and standardize nationwide? Yes. The National Congress on School Transportation is but a year and a half away, and writing committee meetings are taking place this week. In addition to the obvious child safety element of seat belts, I hope conversations also center on their role in an “autonomous,” or at least highly automated school bus. Because, folks, those are coming. Perhaps not in 10 or 15 years. But they are coming. How will they evolve the role of driving the bus?

There is no silver bullet to fix all ills and address all risk, just like there is never a perfect bus driver or a perfect vehicle, no matter how much training or quality assurance is put into either. But lap-shoulder seat belts are among the technologies here today that are a start in the right direction toward making the school bus experience safer, more efficient and less threatening to students, parents and administrators, alike.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on the matter.

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