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Seatbelts On School Buses: Why isn't This a No-Brainer?

2 comments

Year after year, band students from a St. James, Missouri high school spend the summer practicing drills and raising money to celebrate the end of band camp. On August 5, they boarded two school buses for their annual trip to an amusement park. Within 10 minutes of their destination, they were involved in a tragic accident that claimed the life of one student and the teenage driver of a pickup truck. Dozens of other students were treated at area hospitals for minor injuries, and a few were admitted with more serious, but not life-threatening injuries.

The accident took place along a stretch of a Missouri highway where road construction had been underway for several months. There were also reports that a vehicle up the road had stalled. What is known is that a tractor, which was not towing a trailer, had slowed as it approached congestion as a result of the road construction. The speed limit in the area was posted at 50 mph. A pick-up truck, driven by a 19-year-old male, ran into the back of the trailer; one bus slammed into the pick-up, and the second bus slammed into the first, pushing it over the pick-up and on top of the truck tractor.

It is unclear whether the pick-up truck hit the tractor before or after it was hit by the bus. The 75-year-old driver of the first bus told investigators that she had moved to the left to avoid a vehicle stopped on the right side of the road. She checked her mirrors and was unable to stop in time after realizing the pickup had struck the truck tractor ahead of her. An accident report by the Missouri State Highway Patrol states that the tractor and pick-up were stationary. Based on physical evidence at the scene and the final position of the vehicles, it does appear that the first bus driver was “inattentive,’ taking her eyes off of the road, and the second bus driver was following too closely. Exactly what happened that morning remains unclear and investigators say it may take weeks to figure it out, although the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) says it may be more than a year before it can provide any answers. Would seatbelts have saved the lives of two teenagers?

This fatal auto accident coincides with the start of a new school year. By the beginning of September, students nationwide will be boarding school buses for the next 9 months. Do you believe your children are safe? Does the safety on school buses need to be improved? There have been long-standing concerns for years whether seat belts should be mandated on school buses. Let’s think back to when a child is born. Beginning with the first trip home from the hospital, children are properly restrained. Why when they start school do we decide it is okay to let our kids take their first unprotected ride, and continue to do so for many years to come? Furthermore, how effective can we be at enforcing the use of seatbelts in our own vehicles when we send them on the school bus without them? Seat belts need to be on school buses for the same reasons they are used in cars. Many school buses are old, out-dated, and do not give our children enough protection. Adding seatbelts should be a no-brainer; we know they save lives.

Currently, only 6 states (New York, New Jersey, California, Florida, Texas and Louisiana) have laws requiring seat belts on school buses, although in Louisiana and Texas, they are only required if the school district can get funding for them. The NHTSA says that adding seat belts to school buses would reduce seating space, which ultimately means the need for more buses and more drivers. It would put additional burdens on already financially strapped school districts. Is it me or does that sound like we are putting our children’s lives are risk due to funding limitations? Does this make sense to you? If kids can’t fit on a seat with seat belts, then they should be able to fit on the same seat without them. I have to wonder if seat belts would have changed the outcome on August 5. I welcome your opinion.

“Safety isn’t expensive, it’s priceless.” ~ Author Unknown

Mark Bello has thirty-three years experience as a trial lawyer and twelve years as an underwriter and situational analyst in the lawsuit funding industry. He is the owner and founder ofLawsuit Financial Corporation which helps provide cash flow solutions and litigation funding consulting when necessities of life funding is needed during personal injury litigation. Bello is a Justice Pac member of the American Association for Justice, Sustaining and Justice Pac member of the Michigan Association for Justice, Business Associate of the Florida, Tennessee, and Colorado Associations for Justice, a member of the American Bar Association, the State Bar of Michigan and the Injury Board.

2 Comments

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  1. Thomas Kinderknecht says:
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    Due to space limitations, I will divide my comments into two segments, so that I can adequately address three important points.

    My credentials reach back to 1983, when I became a volunteer firefighter, and first began to understand how a school bus is designed, how it functions, and how it behaves in various emergency scenarios. I served nearly 24 years in the Fire Service, until I took my full retirement in 2007. I have participated in training drills (firefighting and extrication—so-called “Jaws of Life”) on actual school buses. Further, I have responded to two school bus fires during my career. In 2005, I started driving a school bus, and for the past two years, I have been a trainer, of both drivers and driver trainers.

    While I understand the logic behind the motivation to equip school buses with seat belts, I also know that there is another side to the issue, a side that rarely receives sufficient attention. I wish to make three important points.

    My first point addresses the responsibility for ensuring that all riders are using the seat belts properly. On whom would this responsibility fall? The obvious answer is the school bus driver, but then a second question arises: How can the driver fulfill this responsibility? The driver can walk the aisle of the bus to verify that the students are properly buckled in. But, then, should a student deliberately bypass the seat belt, by unbuckling and then re-buckling it behind him/her, the driver has no sure way to tell this has happened. Or, should a student pull the shoulder portion of the seat belt below the arm, thus disabling its function, the driver also may not be able to tell. This is because the seats on school buses are designed and constructed to be tall enough to protect students in a collision. The height of the seat design makes it nearly impossible for the driver to see how a seat belt is being used, in the overhead mirror. Keep in mind the driver must drive the bus in a safe manner, maintain order in the bus, and be aware of other traffic and road conditions, all at the same time we are now expecting him/her to monitor seat belt use. At present, there simply is no adequate method in place to ensure compliance with the seat belt usage.

    The second issue derives from the question, “How many seat belts would be required on any given bus?” The obvious answer is, “as many as there are seats on the bus.” However, very few buses load to capacity on any given route or trip. That means there would nearly always be unused belts on the bus. What is to prevent a student from pulling out the retracted belt to its full length, thus creating a 2-3’ swinging weapon with the metal buckle at its end. By installing seat belts in buses, we have, in effect, installed up to 84–depending on seating size of the bus–weapons on each bus for the use of any ill-intentioned student on board. In addition to these “mace-like” swinging weapons, EVERY BELT can be pulled out far enough to be wrapped around the neck of a seated student. When the latch mechanism locks the belt becomes a garrote, which could easily choke a student. Given the stated logic that “if it saves even one life”, I would suggest that we would have the potential to save many, many lives by keeping these weapons out of the hands of students riding school buses.

  2. Thomas Kinderknecht says:
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    Following is the second part of my comments regarding the wisdom of installing seat belts on school buses.

    My third topic has to do with the reason for seat belts in the first place, a collision. Let us examine the worst type of school bus collision, a roll-over. The design of a school bus makes it impossible for a school bus to “right itself” in a roll-over collision. Rather, the bus will come to a stop on its side. The bus, which is 8’ wide, has turned on its side and now has become 8’ high, inside. The aisle has “moved” from center and below the feet to halfway up one side of the turned-over bus. The driver must walk on the only clear path available, the windows on the “down” side of the bus. The driver will have to move through the length of the bus, unbuckling each student who cannot reach his/her seatbelt because of the position of the body in the turned-over seat. Half of the seats in the bus are now above the driver’s shoulders and head, because that 8’ width has become the 8’ height. Students hanging in the air and unable to release their seat belts will have to hang in them until the driver can work his/her way from front to back of the bus. How long will it take for a skilled and trained driver to release 15, 20, 30, or more seat belts, one at a time, AND catch each student as he/she drops out down onto the driver? I venture a guess of 5-7 minutes, minimum, and likely much longer. It takes less than 2 minutes for the atmosphere inside a burning bus to become toxic and deadly, and the inside will be completely engulfed in flames within 5-8 minutes. Even without the threat of fire, any student in the “high side” seats will fall 4-6 feet after releasing the seatbelt, down onto other students and glass shards from the broken windows on the “down” side of the bus.

    A further complication to students hanging, upside down, in their seat belts, lies in the physiology of young children. Until about the age of 9 to 10, a child does not have sufficient musculature or skeletal strength to offset gravity while hanging in a seat belt. The child’s body is “top heavy”, and tends to turn further and further upside down as he/she hangs in the seat belt for longer and longer times. The child cannot right himself/herself, and the internal organs (stomach, liver, intestines) will be pressed by gravity tightly against the child’s diaphragm. It becomes increasingly difficult for the child to inhale against the weight of the internal organs, and the distorted position of an upside down body. A child in such a position—with the added fear, confusion, and panic brought on by the collision—can pass out within 3-4 minutes, and can die of suffocation in less than 7 minutes.

    In summary, there are valid reasons to believe that “seat belts save lives”. However, there are also valid proofs to show that truism is not universal in application. Given the statistics on current school bus collision safety, fatalities will almost certainly INCREASE, not decrease, with mandatory seat belt installation and use. Such is the unintended consequence of mandatory seatbelt installation and use in school buses. These views must be included in any valid dialogue on this issue. It is patently unwise to do otherwise.