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Should seat belts on school buses be required?

May 16, 2017 at 6:20 PM EDT
Millions of American children take a school bus to school each day, and statistically it's the safest option. But could school buses be even safer? Special correspondent Lisa Stark of Education Week reports that a record number of states are considering legislation to require seat belts and other safety upgrades, but for many school districts it may not necessarily pay to have students buckle up.
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JOHN YANG: But first: Every day, millions of parents put their children on buses for the trip to school. Statistically, buses remain the safest way to make that trip. But fatal accidents do happen.

Just yesterday, an 11-year-old boy died in East Texas when the bus he was riding on collided with another vehicle and rolled over.

Special correspondent list Lisa Stark reports that a record number of states are trying to improve school bus safety, part of our weekly series, Making the Grade.

MAN: Get in and put your seat belts on, guys.

LISA STARK: This is a sight you rarely see on a school bus: students buckling themselves in.

STUDENT: You feel safer when you put your seat belt on.

KRIS HAFEZIZADEH, Transportation Director, Austin Independent School District: The school bus transportation, we carry the most precious cargo, right?

LISA STARK: Kris Hafezizadeh is the director of transportation for the Austin, Texas, school district. Five years ago, the district decided every new bus it bought would come with lap shoulder belts, at an extra $8,000 per bus, and not because there had been an accident.

KRIS HAFEZIZADEH: We thought that, you know, we always ask your kids, when they get inside the car, to put on their seat belts. So, to carry the culture inside our school buses, it does add to additional safety.

LISA STARK: But most school districts have decided against adding seat belts.

In Montgomery County, Maryland, buses carry 100,000 students a day, and there has never been an accident in which a student rider died. Buying new buses with seat belts would cost an extra $1 million a year.

Transportation director Todd Watkins says it doesn’t make fiscal sense.

Is that a tough position to take, to try to explain to people?

TODD WATKINS, Transportation Director, Montgomery County Public Schools: It is, because when you’re talking about anything that is involving safety, how can you be against it? And I’m not against it. I just don’t think it’s the best use of money right now, because the safety is at such a high level in school buses as it is.

LISA STARK: Twenty-five million children ride school buses every day. Accidents claim around five to six lives a year. Statistics show children are safer riding to school in a bus than with a parent.

MARK ROSEKIND, Former Administrator, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration: Those big yellow buses are the safest way for all of our kids to get to school every single day. The question is, can we make them safer?

LISA STARK: Mark Rosekind headed up the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, or NHTSA, under President Obama. That agency regulates school buses.

Rosekind shocked school officials by advocating something no other NHTSA director ever had.

MARK ROSEKIND: Three-point seat belts should be the norm on all new school buses, because we’re talking about trying to save every life.

LISA STARK: But districts argue they’re getting a mixed message. There is no federal law requiring seat belts on buses, and NHTSA has concluded — quote — “that large school buses without seat belts do not pose an unreasonable risk of death or injury. We do not find a safety need for a federal mandate.”

MARK ROSEKIND: You don’t need the government to tell you to do this. The technology is available now.

LISA STARK: Whenever there’s a tragedy, such as the Chattanooga crash last November, which killed six children, there is always an anguished debate over seat belts.

ALLISON STOOS, West Brook Bush Crash Families: It’s so frustrating to me every time I see another accident.

LISA STARK: Allison Stoos still bears the scars of her accident over a decade ago. She was traveling with her soccer team in a small bus chartered by her Texas high school, not built to school bus standards, but also without seat belts.

ALLISON STOOS: The bus swerved, and that’s pretty much all I remember.

LISA STARK: The bus rolled over on its side. Two teammates died. Three, including Allison, were seriously injured. She was partially ejected, her arm trapped under the bus. Countless surgeries later, she has limited use of her left arm.

ALLISON STOOS: The way it’s impacted my life and all my friends’ lives, and not just the girls on the bus, but our entire school was just turned upside down.

LISA STARK: Do you think, if you would had had a seat belt, it would have made a difference?

ALLISON STOOS: Certainly, in my injury in our type of wreck, with a rollover, I definitely think it would have made a difference.

LISA STARK: For decades, school buses have been designed to protect riders through something called compartmentalization. The seats are close together. The backs are high and they’re padded. This helps keep the student in the compartment, if you will, during an accident. It works well during front and rear impacts.

This crash test shows how unbelted students — that’s these test dummies — stay in their seats after a frontal crash. But, in this test, which simulates a rollover, very few of the test dummies stay put. Students can also go flying in violent side-impact crashes, as shown in this onboard video.

KRISTIN POLAND, National Transportation Safety Board: These severe side-impact crashes and high-speed rollover crashes are very rare school bus crashes, but, when they do happen, we find that the children are vulnerable.

LISA STARK: Lap-shoulder belts reduce that vulnerability, according to Kristin Poland. She’s with the National Transportation Safety Board, which investigates school bus crashes.

KRISTIN POLAND: In this case, we had a single vehicle that left the roadway, impacted a pole, impacted several trees.

LISA STARK: This 2014 crash in Anaheim, California, injured the driver and nine students. No one died.

KRISTIN POLAND: This was the first crash where we had a school bus that was equipped with lap-shoulder belts in all seating positions.

LISA STARK: Poland looked at what might have been, if two of the more seriously injured students were wearing only lap belts.

KRISTIN POLAND: Here, we have the occupants interacting with each other.

LISA STARK: Or no belts at all.

KRISTIN POLAND: In the unbelted cases, we have our occupant that was seated along the aisle that’s come all the way over and is now down on the floor. The lap-shoulder belts are giving the greatest protection, because they are keeping the body upright, keeping the occupant in the seating compartment, keeping the occupants away from each other.

LISA STARK: Only seven states have school bus seat belt laws on the books, but Louisiana and Texas have not approved the funding and Arkansas’ law is brand-new.

Even advocates will tell you installing belts alone isn’t enough. A big challenge is ensuring students wear them properly, or at all.

Do you ever ride without it on the bus?

STUDENT: Sometimes.

LISA STARK: Why is that?

STUDENT: Because I feel like — sometimes, I forget to put my seat belt on, sometimes.

LISA STARK: But Allison says, at least these students have an option.

ALLISON STOOS: I didn’t have the choice to sit there and buckle myself up to protect myself.

LISA STARK: Allison, with her dad and others, helped get the Texas school bus seat belt law passed in 2007. They’re still trying to get it funded.

Ultimately, money is the biggest driver. Education dollars are scarce, and few districts believe it pays to have students buckle up.

For the PBS NewsHour and Education Week, I’m Lisa Stark in Austin, Texas.

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