A pilot project consisting of 82 school buses equipped with lap/shoulder seat belts last year for 11 North Carolina school districts is being expanded in the 2017-2018 school year, with 114 new buses with the three-point restraints being put into use among 13 districts.
Kevin Harrison, North Carolina’s state director for pupil transportation, told STN that North Carolina’s lap/shoulder seat belt program has “moved beyond a pilot, and is now more of an implementation,” part of the push among school transportation leaders to make buses even safer while also spending public money wisely.
The North Carolina Department of Public Instruction replaces school buses for districts as they age out of fleets. Within the last few years, school districts were offered the option to request buses fitted with lap/shoulder seat belts. The school districts that requested buses with these seat belts had to commit to required use policy, but the specifics of routing and scheduling is left up to each district, Harrison explained.
A major difference between the buses in an original 2003 pilot and buses that debuted in 2008 and that have been used in the seat belt pilots since then is the seating arrangement, said Harrison. In the 2003 pilot, regular three-passenger seats were alternated with two-passenger seat belt-equipped seats for older students, which is a loss of passenger capacity.
Carolina Thomas, the North Carolina dealer for Thomas Built Buses, explained that the seats now in use in buses with restraints are all the same size, a SynTec seat designed to seat either three smaller children or two larger ones.
Rutherford County Transportation Director Brian McClung conveyed to STN that safety should come before other technological developments he is seeing his peers implement. “There are some folks that are even considering Wi-Fi on buses, but not seat belts. Can we honestly say that safety of students is our number one priority if we are considering things like Wi-Fi before seat belts?”
Education and training on proper lap/shoulder belt usage accompany the new buses. Mark Hooper, transportation director for Jackson County Public Schools, told STN, “We are working with students and parents to educate them on the importance of usage as many students have ridden school buses for years without these safety belts.”
There are already benefits observed from the addition of seat belts to school buses, as both Harrison and McClung shared with STN. “We have already seen a reduction in the number of student behavior issues, as well as an increase in driver morale,” McClung said. Harrison noted that studies are ongoing into how improved student behavior leads to better relationships among the students and driver, which in turn results in higher driver retention.