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THE LAST WORD

Seat belts on school buses? Indiana must weigh the facts

Saturday, January 12, 2013 - 12:01 am

Why aren’t seat belts required on school buses?

“If you go get in your car to drive and you don’t have a seat belt on in your automobile, it is against the law,” Indiana Rep. John Bartlett, D-Indianapolis, told WTHR TV-13 reporter Kevin Rader earlier this week in Indianapolis. “And you send your 6-year-old child or grandchild to school and they do not have that option on a school bus, and we think in the great state of Indiana it is time we did that,” he said.

So Bartlett is introducing a bill in the Legislature to require seat belts in all school buses.

A school bus with 26 elementary, middle and high school students aboard rolled over in Clinton County in October. All the injuries were minor. But last March a bus carrying about 50 children ages 5 to 16 in Indianapolis slammed into a bridge abutment, killing a 5-year-old passenger and the driver and critically injuring two other students. WTHR reported that the victim’s mother is campaigning for a nationwide law to require seat belts on school buses.

The federal government currently requires seat belts only in buses weighing less than 10,000 pounds. About 80 percent of school buses nationally are larger than that. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, only a handful of states require seat belts in regular school buses. The WTHR report said there are approximately 13,000 school buses active every day in Indiana, and only 3,330 of them are equipped with seat belts.

The NHTSA reports that school buses are one of the safest forms of transportation in the United States. While traffic accidents kill more than 42,000 people per year on U.S. roads, says the NHTSA, of the approximately 450,000 public school buses that travel about 4.3 billion miles to transport 23.5 million children to and from school and school-related activities every year, on average only six school-age children throughout the U.S. die in school bus crashes as passengers.

According to a 2-year-old report by NBC News correspondent M. Alex Johnson, the National Safety Council says school buses are about 40 times safer than the family car. Johnson writes that “designers of modern school buses don’t trust squirmy children to use seat belts properly. Instead, they use a passive system called compartmentalization. Bus seats aren’t packed so closely together just to maximize capacity (although that’s one reason); they’re spaced tightly and covered with 4-inch-thick foam to form a protective bubble.”

The Indiana Department of Education says the cost of installing seat belts on buses could reach $15,000 per bus depending on the school district, and some districts say they wouldn’t be able to pay for it.

Johnson quotes from a University of Alabama report that confirms seat belts would add “to the cost of a new bus while having little to no impact on safety.”

Kerry Hubartt is editor of The News-Sentinel.