Live 5 Investigates: Should School Buses have seat belts?

Live 5 Investigates: Should School Buses have seat belts?

CHARLESTON, SC (WCSC) - Most small passenger buses are required to have seat belts, but not the big, yellow school buses that take kids to and from school every day. Neither state nor federal law requires them.
But after a deadly accident in Tennessee last year where six children died, the debate about seat belts on school buses was revived in many states.
As part of our series on school bus safety, we talked transportation directors in Lowcountry school systems. Overall, they believe more and more states will begin to require seat belts on buses.
We asked several school officials if they thought school buses should have seat belts. Terry Dingle is the Interim Director of Transportation for Colleton County Schools. "As far as I'm concerned, I don't go to the mailbox without putting my seatbelt on," he said.
"That's really up for the legislature to answer that question. I do think they're probably inevitable, it's just a matter of how it's implemented," said Jeff Scott, Charleston County Schools' Executive Director of Transportation. Scott said if our state moves in that direction, we should learn from other states that have already done so.

"In the near future, I foresee seat belts being on school buses," Paul Cobbs said. Cobbs is the Transportation Director for Dorchester District 4.
The NHTSA says school buses are the safest way for kids to get to school, seatbelts or not. It reports on average every year six school-age children die in school bus crashes, compared to 42,000 people who are killed in traffic crashes on roadways.

Infographics on the NHTSA's website say kids are 70 times more likely to get to school safely in a bus instead of by car, and school buses relieve traffic by keeping 17.3 million cars off the road every morning. 
School bus seats are built to "compartmentalize" the children if there's a crash. "For the most part, if we have an incident going from front to back, you'll have that padded, raised seat in front of you to protect you," Dingle said. But he is more concerned with impacts to the side of a bus, or a roll-over type event like the one in Chattanooga. "The padded seat isn't going to help as much because they'll slide off of the seat. But if we have some type of lap or harness seatbelt, then it would lock and keep from going past the edge of the seat."
Six states currently require seat belts on school buses: California, Texas, Louisiana, Florida, New Jersey, and New York.

South Carolina Representative Wendell Gilliard wants South Carolina to join that list. He is one of several legislators who've proposed a bill this year asking South Carolina to get on board with seat belts.

"After the Tennessee accident, alarms went off in my mind," said Gilliard. "Safety is the number one priority with our children. The buses are equipped if we went to the system. I've talked to engineers and teachers."

Molly Spearman, South Carolina's State Superintendent of Education, mentioned seat belts in a recent address to the media. She was talking about buying new buses to replace the state's current fleet, much of which is in bad shape.

Spearman said the new buses the state is buying are equipped to add seat belts later if districts or the state chooses.

Retrofitting seat belts onto older buses may not be realistic. "It's going to be cost prohibitive to go back in a fleet and replace all the seats on all buses," Scott said. He believes Charleston County Schools and other districts would need to figure out a system to "grandfather out" older buses without seatbelts.
SafeGuard/IMMI is an Indiana-based company that designs, tests and manufactures safety systems such as seat belts. They shared test-crash videos with us showing how seat belts work on school buses. You can see children-sized mannequins
hitting each other, knocking into windows of the bus, and slamming into the roof of the bus cab if they aren't wearing seat belts in a simulated roll-over event.

SafeGuard has crashed 17 school buses in various tests at their research facilities in Westfield, Indiana.  That is more than anyone else in the world including the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, according to SafeGuard
Market Development Manager Charlie Vits. He says they have worked with the NHTSA, state and federal officials, advocates and legislators.
Vits is glad South Carolina is considering bus seat belt legislation and says our state is one of 20 states doing so this year. Vits pointed out what he sees as potential shortfalls, however, in the way the proposed bills are currently
written. For example, he said, H3027 requires lap belts but not lap shoulder belts. Vits said research shows lap shoulder belts are superior. The proposed bills also may present an unrealistic implementation time frame as they require seat belts in only a
year or two.
Vits also said successful laws should define the requirements specifically. And, he said, they should address liability because school districts sometimes fear potential lawsuits if a student is injured or dies because he or she chose not
to wear a seat belt. "Although proposing occupant protection in school buses is good for the traveling students of South Carolina,  my concern is that the bills were worded with minimal opportunity to succeed," Vits added.
Check out the bills currently proposed:
-A Texas feasibility study from 2011 said seat belts would cost $7,750-8,000 more per bus. They interviewed parents, 83-84% of whom felt school buses would be safer with seat belts. The study highlighted concerns about capacity and liability,
and recommended prioritized implementation. SafeGuard reports the cost of seat belts is 53% lower than it used to be.
-It's often said that seat belts would reduce capacity on school buses because only two, and not three, student would fit per seat. That could potentially require districts to buy more buses for their fleets.

-Some parents and school bus drivers express concerns that seat belts would slow emergency evacuations because children would be strapped in.

-SafeGuard addresses many of these claims including capacity and evacuations, which they say are common myths, on their website here:
-Alabama's Bus Project in 2010 suggested funding would be most cost-effective if it was spent "investing in enhanced safety measures in loading/unloading zones… because more pupil fatalities occur outside buses."
-The National Highway Transportation Safety's administrator Dr. Mark Rosekind said in 2015 that federal officials have not always had a clear opinion and message about seat belts on school buses. He used the opportunity to emphasize, "School buses should have three-point seat belts. Period." In December 2016, the NHTSA submitted a request for public comment detailing a plan to collect information from states already requiring seat belts on school buses. The Department wants to create a model policy and best practices guide to help other jurisdictions considering this option.
-Information requested and provided to the Connecticut General Assembly last month, including links to additional reports:
"It's never going to be a perfect system," Dingle said. "But I feel if we install these seatbelts, the likelihood of discipline issues should go down. You can't turn around and you can't run from one seat to another, hit somebody, throw
something. You're locked into your seat."
"They are a safety tool and the state department should consider that. As of right now I guess it's a cost situation," Cobbs said.

 If districts don't want to wait for state funding, they would need to prioritize the costs into their own budgets. Ten districts in Indiana, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Texas and Wyoming have added seat belts to new school buses, according
to the NHTSA.
"You cannot put a price on a life. If taxpayers have to pay for it, I'm quite sure they'd want to do it for the safety of their children," Rep. Gilliard said.
Copyright 2017 WCSC. All rights reserved.