Saturday, June 6, 2020
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Would seat belts on school buses save lives?

Many people have been saddened with the number of school bus accidents this year. As traffic accidents go, school buses are rarely involved in fatal crashes, and the occupants of the bus usually aren’t the ones killed. However, efforts are continuously under way to find a way to protect students from injuries or death as they’re involved in accidents while riding a school bus.

I stand by research that I forwarded earlier this year, when Maryland lawmakers were considering a requirement that all school buses have seat belts. I touted the idea, which was supported by research, that comparmentalization—confining students to cocoons with padding in the bus—might be a more cost-effective way to prevent severe injury.

Compartmentalization doesn’t work so well, according to the published scientific record, in rollover accidents involving school buses, though, and the recent crash in Tennessee involved a bus that rolled over on its side, killing five elementary students. Rollover accidents aren’t the most common type of accident involving school buses, but they still occur frequently enough to make transportation officials address the question of how we can make it safer for students who might be involved in a rollover accident.

Now the former head of the National Transportation Safety Board tells ABC News that seat belts on school buses can help save lives.

Published research is equivocal, in my view, especially in accidents where the bus doesn’t roll over. But more recent studies that involve video analysis of rollover-type accidents show that kids bounce around like clothes tumbling in a dryer during a rollover accident. If they were wearing a seat belt, this tumbling wouldn’t occur and lives would be saved.

“I am hopeful that the state of Tennessee will join the six other states at some point and require seat belts in school buses—so we can say truthfully we are doing everything we can to keep our children safe in that very important responsibility of transporting them back and forth to their school,” the network quoted Jim Hall, former chair of the National Transportation Safety Board, as saying.

“This myth of compartmentalization is really just a cover so the expense and responsibility of seat belts are not borne by the school districts,” he added. “The technology has improved. The highways have become more dangerous, but the kids are still placed in these vehicles without seat belts.”

Improvements in technology weren’t specified in the article, but I want to point out that one of the chief objections to seat belt use in school buses was that extrication or even exiting a bus on fire, say, would potentially be more difficult if students were strapped into seats or, under stress, were unable to manipulate the release device on a seat belt. There has been no research on this, mind you, but it has been hypothesized that extrication might be more difficult in rollover accidents and exiting the bus might be hampered in another type of emergency.

In our article about the proposed Maryland legislation, which was defeated, as it had been in previous years, we said the cost of fitting existing buses with seat belts depended on whether the seats were harness-ready. The cost would be about $10,000 per bus if the seats had to be retrofitted, we noted.

What is the value of a child’s life? Everyone, certainly, wants to do what’s going to save lives, and while everyone wants to do that in the most cost-effective way, Mr Hall suggests that we not allow cost to prevent us from taking action that we know could potentially save a child’s life in a rollover accident.

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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