School bus safety: Why aren’t seat belts mandatory for students?

AVERILL PARK, N.Y. (NEWS10) – School bus crashes are rare, but when they happen, they can be frightening to watch as the children often get tossed around. The busses our kids ride in have seat belts, but in most cases the children aren’t wearing them.

On September 23 in Crosby, Texas, a bus carrying 52 students swerved off the road. The children were tossed around like rag dolls. Twelve were sent to the hospital but none of the injuries were serious.

On November 18th, 2014, in Wapello, Iowa, a bus carrying 10 kids flipped over. Children ended up on the ceiling but again, students just suffered from bumps and bruises.

Crashes like this have some wondering why aren’t school children belted in when they ride the bus?  The short answer is because they don’t have to be.

Federal law states that seat belts are “not required on larger school buses weighing more than 10,000 pounds.” That’s four out of every five buses on the road.

In New York seat belts are required on large buses; however, “each school district set its own policy on use.” In other words, the bus has to have them, but the kids aren’t required to wear them unless the district orders it.

“Each year they do three safety drills and part of the safety drill is showing the children how to use the seatbelt,” Averill Park Head Driver Tammy Nalley said.

Averill Park, like the vast majority of districts, don’t require kids to wear the belts and for a reason that might surprise you, safety.

If a lap belt isn’t on correctly and a bus crashes, it can cause traumatic internal injury.  If a child is not belted, they literally bounce off those high padded seats.

“It’s essentially like an egg carton, so it’s protecting the child like an egg would be in the container,” Nalley said. “It’s taking the energy and absorbing it into the seat the steel frame will give a little the extra padding on the back the proximity to how closer they are to each other, all those things play into the safety of the seat.”

Another concern is, if a bus flips over in water or catches fire, and you have 60 kids belted in, how can a single driver get them all out in time.

If a parent wants a child to wear a belt there is nothing stopping them. And every day before a single bus goes out, they’re checked.

“So we fix the seat belt, we make sure the seatbelt are in tip top shape. The other thing we’re looking for is the back of the seats,” Nalley said.

There can’t be any tears in the seats or that egg carton effect doesn’t work.

There’s another problem with seatbelts if a district decides that every child has to wear one.  How does one driver watch all those kids and the road at the same time?

“Enforcement would be a challenge, not saying that it couldn’t be done, but you’re one driver. You have 40, 50, 60 kids on the bus, how do you enforce each child is wearing their seatbelt and wearing it correctly?”

You could put a bus monitor on every bus, but you’re talking about a half million buses in this country and that would cost a small fortune.

There are companies that promote shoulder belts like the ones we use in our cars, but they are not only expensive to install, they take up much more room and would bumped some kids off the bus.

In fact, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration found that shoulder belts would force so many children to walk to school or drive with parents that we’d see the annual death rate jump from five children  we lose now, to as many as 19 per year. That’s almost a 400 percent increase.

The bottom line, don’t expect your school to require seat belt use anytime soon. And know, even when a bus crashes, kids almost always walk away.

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