Wednesday, August 12, 2020
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Md. looks at law to require seat belts on buses

A bill now in the Maryland state Senate would require school buses to come equipped with seat belts, the Herald-Mail reports.


A 2005 bus crash in Missouri seriously injured 23 of 53 students. (Larry W Smith/Getty Images)

State Senator James Brochin, Democrat of Baltimore County, proposed Senate Bill 183, which would require school buses to have seat belts for the 2022-23 school year. Many buses in the state have restraint-ready seats already and would simply need to be fitted with the actual harnesses. New buses would have to be purchased with seat belts.

Washington County, for example, has 75 buses with restraint-ready seats, so they could be updated by replacing the seat backs with ones that have a shoulder-and-lap seat-belt system, the paper quoted Transportation Supervisor Barb Scotto as saying. The cost would be a little more than $10,000 per bus, or about $765,000.

On the other hand, 15 buses purchased last year don’t have the restraint-ready seat backs, and it would cost the district about $315,000, or about $21,000 per bus, to retrofit those. New buses would be purchased with the seat-belt system already installed if SB 183 becomes law.

Editor’s note (Nov. 28, 2016): This story is updated with more recent research involving school buses that roll over during the accident. It is likely that seat belts would help to save lives in such cases, a former chair of the National Transportation Safety Board has said.

Statewide, the upgrades would cost schools a total of about $117 million, WJZ-TV (CBS affiliate, Baltimore) reported last year, but a fiscal note attached to the bill, which would impose an unfunded mandate on local school systems, says the total cost across the state would be about half that amount, $60.8 million until the effective date plus a little under $2 million annually thereafter.

And although WJZ-TV reported that it’s mainly the cost that keeps school systems from jumping on board, the federal government has also concluded that there’s no reason to require seat belts on school buses.

Their reason, straight from the National Transportation Safety Board, is that while seat belts in cars protect occupants mainly from ejection, injuries from ejection are exceedingly rare in school buses. And if students are wearing seat belts during a non-rollover accident, it could make it more difficult for emergency personnel to extricate them or for them to evacuate.

Using padded seats in close quarters, a safety mechanism known as “compartmentalization” and seen on typical Maryland school buses, tends to be most effective in preventing injuries in the vast majority of accidents school buses are involved in, the NTSB said, along with the finding that the incidence of school bus accidents was low.

As a result, seat-belt use in school buses has been a somewhat controversial topic over the years, owing to the fact that research is equivocal: seat belts save lives in cars and even in smaller buses, but in larger buses, they don’t have an appreciable impact on safety, as far as the data are concerned.

Large statistical data sets are no comfort to the rare person whose son or daughter was killed or seriously injured in a bus rollover accident, but evidence is simply not clear that shoulder-and-lap harnesses would save lives even in those.

“School bus crash data show that compartmentalization has been effective at protecting school bus passengers,” the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration writes. “NHTSA’s 2002 Report to Congress found that the addition of lap belts did not improve occupant protection for the severe frontal impacts that were studied for that report.

“The National Transportation Safety Board and the National Academy of Sciences have come to similar conclusions. The NTSB concluded in a 1987 study of school bus crashes that most fatalities and injuries occurred because the occupant seating positions were in direct line with the crash forces.

“NTSB stated that seat belts would not have prevented most of the serious injuries and fatalities from occurring in school bus crashes. In 1989, the NAS completed a study of ways to improve school bus safety and concluded that the overall potential benefits of requiring seat belts on large school buses were insufficient to justify a Federal mandate for installation. NAS also stated that the funds used to purchase and maintain seat belts might be better spent on other school bus safety programs and devices that could save more lives and reduce more injuries.”

Research is also available from a case study of a rollover school bus crash, reported by the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland. This study suggests keeping kids in tight, padded seats is most effective but the method fails in rollover crashes:

Most injuries in this severe school bus crash involved the head, neck and shoulder on the left side. Severe injuries included a fatal head injury, and a subluxation of the cervical spine at C2–3. Based on seating position, there were few right-sided injuries from passenger–passenger contact. Correlation of injury to physical evidence indicates that these resulted from contact with side panels and headers. There was no evidence of passenger injury resulting from contact with the edge of the seat in the opposite aisle. … We believe that most injuries occurred when the bus struck the rock pile at the bottom of the enbankment.

The strategy … in school buses involves compartmentalization. The passenger is “cocooned” in the compartment with surrounding passive restraints: padded seat backs; a steel inner structure that bends to absorb energy; strong anchoring points; high, wide and thick backing; even spacing to keep children inside the compartments. In our study, fractures occurred in children seated on the side to which the bus rolled. Both severe injuries occurred in children seated on the side opposite to which it rolled. We believe this is a significant finding, suggesting that compartmentalization failed to contain passengers in this type of crash and to protect passengers along the sides of the compartment.

A test program was undertaken in 1984 to determine the effects of adding seat belts to school buses. Buses of 3 different sizes were equipped with test dummies restrained with lap belts: tests involved rigid-barrier 48 km/h collisions. It was concluded that the use of lap seat belts in all of the 3 sizes of recent model school buses resulted in more severe head and neck injuries for belted than for unbelted occupants in frontal collisions. Equipping school buses with restraints also introduces the possibility for added injury with the presence of housing and extra structural support required to absorb the forces incurred by the restraints. This would counter the benefits of protective padding seen in the compartmentalization model.

Proponents of lap belts in school buses cite “carry-over” value—by introducing “lifesaving” habits in children. However, passenger restraints in cars act mainly to prevent ejection, an event very uncommon in school bus crashes. It is, however, recognized that seat belts also prevent secondary contacts within the occupant compartment, thus minimizing trauma with the sides and ceiling of the vehicle. Seat belts may make the evacuation of a large number of children extremely difficult and prolonged if they are restrained in an overturned bus. Thus, the use of seat belts for children in school buses is controversial.

In the compartmentalization model, protection exists in the event of head-on or rear-end collisions. However, little protection exists along the sides of the compartment over window headers and on panelling between windows. Extra padding in these areas would be helpful to minimize direct-impact trauma.

I therefore believe adding some padding around the windows and in other key areas may be a wiser way to spend this money, if upgrades are ordered, than by adding seat belts. This is especially true since data also reveal a strong tendency, in New Jersey, which requires seat belts on school buses, for kids not to wear the seat belts while on the bus.

Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.

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