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Tennesseans debate merits of seat belts on buses

By Dorren Klausnitzer
The Tennesseean

Belt or no belt?

It's not a fashion question. It's a question of safety, and it's at the heart of a local and national debate.

Should school buses be fitted with seat belts? The answer depends on whom you ask and how much you're willing to pay.

Only two states have laws that require belts. Tennessee is not one of them.

The Tennessee Parent Teacher Association endorses the idea, while the National Safety Council does not.

It's an issue riddled with inconsistencies. We buckle up children in cars as infants. There's legislation requiring adults to wear seat belts in cars, trucks and vans, but once a child steps on a big yellow bus, seat belts are scarce.

In light of a recent bus accident in which a 7-year-old child was seriously injured, the Metro school board revisited the long-standing debate again but holds firm in its position that buses don't need the safety straps.

''I could not tell that anything has changed since it was discussed last,'' said Pam Garrett, chairman of the nine-member board.

Garrett said the board and its advisers deemed seatbelts on buses as ''an adverse safety concern.''

''They are ineffective in catastrophic accidents'' such as rollovers, she said.

And they are expensive, said Keith Phillips, director of transportation for the school system.

It would cost in excess of $4.4 million to retrofit lap belts on buses, an amount that would stress the board's tight budget, said Phillips, who prepared a 17-page report for the board outlining the pros and cons of seat belts on buses.

Phillips' final recommendation: Belts are not worth the price, their use couldn't be enforced, they could be used as weapons and there is no definitive study saying they make buses any safer for children.

But parents and students used to buckling up in cars for safety say they want the same in buses.

Are belts better?
At the center of the debate is whether seat belts make buses safer.

Lap belts in the front, which could be retrofitted in buses, are no longer used in cars because they sometimes caused internal bleeding in accidents, Phillips said.

They were replaced with three-point harnesses that go over the shoulder. Installing three-point harnesses in buses would be impossible, Phillips said, because it would require major structural changes to the interior of buses.

A 2001 Cornell University study found that lap belts could help in rollover accidents by preventing children from being thrown on the roof of the bus or being ejected, but local school officials say they can't remember such an accident in the Midstate in years.

The study also concluded that the belts could injure some riders and prevent others from quickly getting off the bus if it were on fire or sinking.

It also noted belts were totally ineffective if not worn.

In districts that have belts on buses, the study said 90% did not mandate their use, and only 6% of the districts said students use the belts at least half the time.

Cocoon of foam
Phillips said today's school buses keep children safe by cushioning any impact they may have.

''We think compartmentalizing them is the most effective and safest means of transporting them.''

Compartmentalizing means children ride in a cocoon of foam, literally surrounded by energy-absorbing material.

The seats on school buses are highly padded, 24 inches tall from the seat base to top and close together, buffeting the rider from most forms of impact. Buses also are built stronger and to different specification than cars and are designed to absorb the shock of most impacts, Phillips said.

And, he said, their safety record is excellent.

Since 1967, there have been two fatalities in the state involving a child rider on a school bus.

Kip Reel, director of Maury County schools, said he has seen firsthand the safety of buses.

''In the last four years, we've had two situations where vehicles crossed the median and slammed into a school bus in a head-on collision, and in neither case were there any serious injuries.''

In Cheatham County, Schools Director Bruce Gibbs said the seat-belt debate arises every year or so, but he has no plans to add belts to buses.

''We try to give it consideration each time it comes up, but we are still of the opinion that encapsulating them in foam, that currently exists on the buses, is the best option.

''There's a plethora of problems that are there in using seat belts, and when you weigh it with the safety record of school buses, it doesn't seem to be a practical thing to do.''

Parents' fears
To parents and students, the idea of not using belts does not seem practical.

''Absolutely I think they should have them for the same reason cars have them,'' said Romy Conley, who has two children in Sumner County schools.

''If a bus gets in an accident, the kids go flying into the seat in front of them. The scary thing is, these kids, as small as they are, they'd hit the back of that metal seat and get their teeth knocked out.''

Because of his safety concerns and behavior issues on buses, Conley takes his two daughters to and from school instead of allowing them to ride a bus.

Donna Reagan's three children also forgo the bus ride to and from Sumner County schools because of safety concerns. ''It stands to reason, when looking at the data, how kids can fly across a school bus even though they have extra padding. It just helps to reinforce if you buckle up in a car, then you should have to buckle up in a school bus,'' she said.

Shantel Martin, 16, said she would like to get in the habit of wearing a seat belt to and from Maplewood High School in Nashville.

''They should have seat belts on the buses because when a bus driver gets going real fast, you can sometimes fall out of your seat,'' she said.

And while transportation experts say there is no way to ensure children would buckle up, Shantel said she and most of her friends would buckle up if seat belts were provided.

Garrett of the Metro school board predicted the parent and students' pro-belt position.

''We teach children from the time they are born to be in a car restraint, and we have seat-belt laws in the state. It is inconsistent to put children on a bus and not buckle them in,'' Garrett said.

''I think the reason the issue comes back up is reactive, but if we really look at the overall picture and what the track record has been, buses are safe.''

Closer look
In a memo sent to Metro school board members, Keith Phillips, director of transportation, detailed both sides of the issue of seat belts on school buses, concluding, ''the cost of retrofitting seat belts in school buses outweighs the potential benefit.''

Here are the pros and cons Phillips gave the board

Education. Teaching children to buckle up in any vehicle to reduce injury makes sense.

Litigation. People injured in school buses have sued districts, bus dealers and manufacturers for not having lap belts.
Student behavior. Seat belts will improve student behavior, reduce driver distractions.

Protection. Over the past 20 years, using higher seats in buses without lap belts has consistently failed in side-impact and rollover crashes.

Cost. To retrofit lap belts on Metro's 16,996 school bus seats would cost $4.4 million. There is no cost for retrofitting three-point belts such as those used in cars because it would require significant re-engineering of school buses to accommodate the devices.

Effectiveness. Seat belts are of little use in the types of catastrophic accidents that cause death or serious injury. Seat belts might prevent fast escape from a flaming or sinking bus.

Enforcement. It's not possible for the bus driver to make sure everyone has his or her seat belt on properly.
Mixed message. Children might get the wrong message if seat belts are provided, but usage is not enforced.

Injuries. Children have been injured by seat belts used as weapons by other students and by catching their fingers in the buckles or tripping over them.