HomeSpecial Reports‘Great Debate’ Reignited?

‘Great Debate’ Reignited?

A recent School Transportation News survey about school bus crashes and seatbelt use indicates many school districts nationwide are still reluctant to install the occupant restraint systems.

Over one-third of 160 readers responding to the online survey in November said they have yet to install lap/shoulder seatbelts on their school buses. One likely reason is the already high safety record of school buses. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s Fatality Analysis Reporting System, there were 81 fatal crashes involving school buses in 2021, which accounted for a little over one-tenth of 1 percent
of all fatal motor vehicle crashes in the U.S. that year. Only 998 fatal school bus related crashes occurred over the decade before that, of those 113 were killed while inside school buses, 61 of which were students.

Meanwhile, nearly three-quarters of STN readers reported that their operations have not experienced a serious school bus crash in the past five years. Of those that have, less than 20 percent had serious injuries or fatalities. Still, NHTSA generally advocates for the use of seatbelts, where affordable, even if it stopped short of requiring them in large school buses over a decade ago and leaving the decisions up to states. Other organizations also advocate their use, including the National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services, National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), the National Safety Council, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the National Coalition for Seatbelts on School Buses, the National PTA, many state PTA associations, the Passenger Safety Association of North America, some school bus driver associations, and local advocacy groups.

Additionally, school bus manufacturers report an increased demand for them in new buses. Rudy Breglia, founder of the School Bus Seat Belt Safety Alliance, noted that cost is often cited as a barrier, leading to resistance from school bus drivers. Instead, Breglia said opponents want to spend their money on new safety equipment/communications/training, as they believe that the low number of student deaths and injuries in crashes doesn’t necessitate the cost of occupant restraint systems.

Breglia said other “false claims” include reduced capacity, children not using available seatbelts or unable to use them, slow evacuations, hanging upside down after a rollover, and bus drivers forced to cut seatbelts to evacuate students in an emergency.

Lap/shoulder seatbelt installation is required in Arkansas, California, Iowa, Nevada, New Jersey, and Texas as well as by individual school districts and transportation providers nationwide. Usage varies, such as in New York, where school districts can specify between lap or lap/shoulder belts. Ohio joins the rest of the states (minus Florida with its law only requiring lap belts and a similar Louisiana law that lacks appropriated funding necessary for enforcement) in leaving school bus seatbelt implementation decisions to local districts. A school bus safety working group, called for by Gov. Mike DeWine, took up the issue after a fatal student ejection in August that killed 11-year-old Aidan Clark. The working group was initially expected to release its recommendations in early January but at this writing it was delayed until after press time. Still, some members voiced concern about unintended consequences of students wearing seatbelts. It’s a recurring theme.

In spring 2022, a Big Walnut Local School District school bus in Columbus, Ohio, rear-ended another while traveling less than 20 mph. The bus driver was reportedly distracted by a student and was unable to stop in time. There were no reported injuries. Tim Wagner, director of administrative services, said the district’s school buses have no seatbelts and there are no plans to install them unless mandated. “The school bus is the safest form of transportation,” he said. “We have found greater safety results by focusing on technology and training. While the death of any child is a tragedy, it is a rare event.”
He expressed concern about the use of seatbelts in mass evacuations, such as when the driver is incapacitated or during a fire. Instead, Wagner advocates for federally mandated collision avoidance technology on all buses, increasing bus driver training and a mandated class for parents on bus safety issues outside and inside the bus.

More recently in Oregon, an automobile turned in front of a Beaverton School District bus on Nov. 14. The school bus was traveling at 25 mph and was unable to stop. It collided with an automobile at its driver’s door. Both drivers were transported to the hospital, the bus driver suffering from a concussion and internal injuries that resulted in missing a month of work. None of the 30 students onboard sustained injuries. While the bus had no seatbelts onboard for students, a three-point lap/shoulder belt stopped the driver’s forward motion quickly after impact, which limited further injuries, said Craig Beaver, Beaverton School District administrator for transportation.

The deceleration movement prevented the driver’s head from impacting the windshield or side window as well as allowing the driver to remain in control of the bus, Beaver added. All 128 of the district’s Type C buses that transport students with Individualized Education Programs are equipped with three-point seatbelts or lap belts to provide added safety. Sixty of the district’s Type D 84-passenger buses used for general education routes are equipped with integrated car seats in the first two rows for use by pre-kindergarten and K-5 students who weigh under 40 pounds, said Beaver. He added that Oregon has no statute requiring child safety restraint system usage in school buses. Indiana is the only state to require them while they are merely recommendations in others. “Err on the side of safety and spend the extra money to install some integrated seats if pre-K students are riding,” Beaver advised. “If families choose not to use them, there isn’t an impact on seating space as the 39-inch integrated seat will still sit three K-5 students comfortably if needed.”

On Feb. 7, 2022, a crash occurred in the North Kitsap School District in Kingston, Washington affecting a large general education school bus without student seatbelts. While the driver’s restraint system confined them within the seat during the collision, the driver was injured by the crushing of the front of the bus, noted John Sides, transportation director.

But Sides credited compartmentalization for preventing student injuries. While no large general education school buses have student seatbelts, smaller special education buses do, Sides added. “Washington state law requires the usage of seatbelts in any school bus seats which have a seatbelt, no matter the style,” he said. “All seatbelts on our special needs buses are of the shoulder-strap style.”

Sides said he’s seen compartmentalization work in a crash and believes seatbelts work just as well. The delay in mandating them nationwide is likely a monetary decision made by federal authorities realizing the financial burden that would be placed on school districts, communities and states if, and when, school bus seatbelts are required, he added.

Dave Chandler, the transportation director of Weld Re-9 Transportation in Ault, Colorado, recounted a December 2022 collision of a vehicle with the side of a school bus after it left a student stop. The vehicle’s driver was charged. The Blue Bird Vision bus with 30 passengers and two mid-bus wheelchair positions had lap belts when it was new in 2012. But after watching crash test videos comparing lap belts to three-point or no belts at all, they were removed, Chandler noted.

Of the five students on the bus, he said one bounced from their seat, two bounced into each other, and the others “just bounced.” Paramedics evaluated the students and released them on scene. Two students later complained of aches, Chandler added, but there were no lasting injuries. The bus driver required a chiropractic visit.

“Would seatbelts have prevented injuries? Maybe three-point, but not lap belt only,” said Chandler. Chandler added that his district has a newer Type A bus with integrated lap/shoulder seatbelts used on a route for special education students. He shared that he doesn’t believe new bus purchases will have seatbelts as compliance is difficult with the older, larger-sized students. He added compartmentalization is “good for the most part” and expressed concerns about evacuation efforts if students are belted in.

Meanwhile, Oakland Schools in Waterford, Michigan has three-point seatbelts on its smaller Type A buses as mandated by federal and state law, especially those serving students with special needs. Students need to use a seatbelt to stay in their seat or be otherwise secured with a harness or child restraint.

On some Type C buses, seatbelts in the first two bench seats provide a means of keeping younger students in their seats, although some won’t stay buckled, explained Thomas Korth, Oakland’s transportation supervisor. He said he also believes compartmentalization keeps students safe, and with crashes being rare and injury and fatality numbers low, seatbelt use should be up to individual districts or states. Instead of mandating seatbelt use, he argued, the focus should be on studying why crashes happen and provide more training for drivers and students.

Research Says Otherwise
But during a presentation in September to the Ohio School Bus Safety Working Group, an NTSB expert said compartmentalization only works in certain circumstances. Dr. Kristin Poland, deputy director of NTSB’s Office of Highway Safety, noted that compartmentalization protects properly seated occupants in closely spaced and energy absorbing seats during a front or rear impact.

“When we see severe side impact crashes or in rollover crashes, there’s nothing to keep the child within the protection of the seating compartment,” Poland added. She said properly worn lap/shoulder belts provide the best protection for large school bus passengers in all crash types by keeping children within the seating compartment before and during crash dynamics, preventing ejection. Seatbelts also reduce injury, especially to the head, allowing self-evacuation.

NTSB’s crash investigations as well as crash tests performed at the likes of the IMMI Center for Advanced Product Evaluation in Indiana show that when the occupant is thrown from their seating compartment, they impact objects that will not absorb energy, namely bus sidewalls, interior roof, seat edges, and other occupants. The result can be serious and sometimes fatal injuries.

NTSB notes that development of well-designed lap/ shoulder belts could fit all school bus occupant ages and sizes. In 1999, NTSB issued recommendations to NHTSA to require occupant protection systems accounting for all types of crashes, recognizing that compartmentalization only addresses front or rear impact crashes but not side impacts or rollovers.

In 2008, NHTSA issued a final rule effective in 2011 requiring small school buses under 10,000 pounds GVWR to have passenger lap/shoulder belts. But in doing so, NHTSA denied a petition for rulemaking on lap/shoulder belts in larger school buses, citing cost, which the agency said could also result in potentially displacing students off the school bus and onto less safe vehicles, and that seatbelts would only save on average two additional student lives per year.

Since then, seatbelt technology has advanced to counter reduced passenger capacity. Flex seating allows most elementary students to sit three to a row, while larger students and high schoolers sit two to a row. Meanwhile, NHTSA’s update to Federal Motor Vehicle
Safety Standard 222 resulted in enhanced compartmentalization for larger school buses (adding 4 inches to seat back height) and voluntary performance standards for passenger lap belts and passenger lap/shoulder belts. The NTSB issued new recommendations to states in accordance with FMVSS 222 to install lap/shoulder belts. H-18-9 calls on selected states to amend statutes to upgrade the seatbelt requirement from lap belts to lap/ shoulder belts for all passenger seating positions in new large school buses.

H-18-10 calls on other states to enact legislation requiring all newly manufactured large school buses to be equipped with passenger lap/shoulder belts at all passenger seating positions.

Meg Sweeney, NTSB project manager and accident investigator, noted during the National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services in November that school districts need to also prioritize the safety of their employees. She referenced a Dec. 17, 2021 school bus crash in Monaville, Texas, involving a model-year 2018, 43-passenger school bus with seatbelts, that occurred when the driver became distracted by the vehicle’s vent window and lost control.

An aide who was sitting facing the aisle and not wearing a seatbelt was ejected and fatally injured. The driver and three student passengers sustained minor injuries. One student passenger restrained in a child safety seat was uninjured. NTSB noted that had the available seatbelts been worn by all passengers, injuries would have been reduced and the ejection prevented.

The Texas district, Hempstead Independent School District, has since updated its policy to require seatbelt use by staff that is in line with state’s mandatory seatbelt policy for students.

Meanwhile, Julie A. Mansfield, a research assistant professor at the Injury Biomechanics Research Center and co-director of the Center for Child Injury Prevention Studies at Ohio State University, also spoke to the Ohio School Bus Safety Working Group in September.
“We know lap and shoulder belts prevent injuries by reducing the risk of occupants becoming projectiles and striking surfaces within the bus, and they also prevent students from being ejected from the bus entirely,” she said. “Ejection carries a high mortality rate, and sadly ejection was a major factor in the death of 11-year-old Aiden Clark in August.”

Echoing NTSB’s assertions, Mansfield noted that seatbelts can speed up the evacuations after a crash by reducing the risk of head strikes and concussions. Students who remain conscious and coherent can self-evacuate a bus quickly and under their own power, she added. Charles Vits, an occupant protection support consultant for IMMI, said CAPE crash test findings affirm the safest way to provide occupant protection in a vehicle is using a lap/shoulder seatbelt restraint system.

“A passenger inside a vehicle will continue at that same rate of speed as the vehicle even when the vehicle is stopped by some other object in a crash,” he commented. “The passenger will continue their motion until also stopped by some object, whether it is the seat back in front of the passenger, the interior surface of the bus, or best and safest, a lap/shoulder belt passenger restraint system.”

What determines the extent of the injury to the passenger is how the energy of the passenger is managed when that passenger is being stopped, Vits added. NTSB’s Poland noted that driver distraction also decreases with seatbelt use, as the systems keep all children properly seated and less prone or physically able to misbehave.

“There’s less motion inside the bus and fewer children moving around,” she observed. “There’s less need for the drivers to have to keep the students properly seated.”
Student behavior management is a significant benefit, added Vits. Bartholomew Consolidated School Corporation in Columbus, Indiana reported a 90-percent reduction in behavior write-ups in its first year of implementing lap/shoulder seatbelts on its buses, with other schools in the state reporting similar improvement. That also results in on-time bus schedules, Vits added. “Drivers can focus on their driving tasks, resulting in safer rides,” he said. “Driver retention is increased, reducing the challenge to districts to find new drivers and train them. Even the administrative costs associated with each write-up is reduced, saving a district funds that can be used elsewhere.”

Editor’s Note: As reprinted in the February 2024 issue of School Transportation News.


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