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School bus safety debate

Saturday’s tragedy in Rocky Hill, Connecticut has reignited what seems like an age-old debate: should school buses provide seat belts?

An article today in the Hartford Courant reports that one student was killed and at least two others were seriously injured when the school bus they were riding in crashed on the way to a robotics competition. The bus carrying gifted math and science students, including a number from from the Greater Hartford Academy of Mathematics and Science, was on its way to Farmington High School when a station wagon hit the bus, causing it to break through a highway guardrail and go over the side of an embankment. http://www.courant.com/news/connecticut/hc-bus-crash-0110.artjan10,0,1973145.story

Now state lawmaker Representative Antonio Guerrera (D-Rocky Hill) has said that he will propose legislation mandating seat belts on school buses in Connecticut. “The co-chairman of the legislature's transportation committee acknowledges that the pros and cons of such a mandate must still be researched, but he said that proposing legislation will jump-start that process.” http://www.courant.com/news/connecticut/hc-proposed-bill-seat-belts-buses-0110,0,1628249.story

This issues surrounding school bus safety have been studied for decades. According to The National Coalition for School Bus Safety (NCSBS), “Thirty-five years ago in California, UCLA engineers performed a series of classic school bus crash studies, which determined that the major cause for injury in school bus accidents was the inadequacy of school bus seats. They proposed “compartmentalization” of the child occupants between high-back, well-padded and well-anchored seats capable of absorbing crash forces with large aisle side panels to contain riders. A lap belt was recommended to provide substantial additional protection.” http://www.ncsbs.org/testimonies/seat_belt_background.htm

NCSBS raises numerous complaints that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) of the U.S. Department of Transportation has refused to implement more extensive safety requirements recommended by their sister agency, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB.) The advocacy group NCSBS criticizes a report made to Congress in April of 2002 by NHTSA-following a four year examination of school bus crash data-saying they are inappropriately focused on unrealistic capacity goals and that, “Had NHTSA chosen to evaluate the complete range of all accident possibilities, they would certainly have concluded, as did the NTSB, that ‘compartmentalization’ was compromised and incomplete.”

A 2005 article in The Washington Post, following a fatal school bus crash in nearby Arlington, Virginia, stated, “Over the years, seat belt advocates have gained ground in fits and starts. In 1987, New York became the first state to require two-point lap belts on new school buses, followed by New Jersey in 1992. Florida recently passed a similar law, and California has moved to require three-point shoulder belts on new buses.” http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A63970-2005Apr18.html

The article continued, though, by noting that there was no consensus on the effectiveness of such laws. It also went on to cite the comments of officials from three national school transportation groups. Based on conclusions from the NHTSA study, “lap belts could increase the risk of serious neck and abdominal injuries. Shoulder belts, the study concluded, ‘could provide some benefit, unless misused.’ Many young passengers, the study warned, were likely to wear shoulder belts incorrectly…

“Experts on school bus safety noted that the buses -- because of their size and the design of their passenger cabins -- have a far lower fatality rate in crashes than regular passenger vehicles.

“The national study, reviewing data from 1990 through 2000, found an average of 10.2 crash deaths a year among those riding in school buses. A separate 2002 report from the National Research Council found that walking, riding a bicycle and traveling to school in a car were far riskier than riding in a school bus.”

Science Daily reported on August 7, 2009, that the University of Alabama’s, “pilot study assessing the impact of the installation of lap/shoulder seat belts on a limited number of Alabama school buses is entering the final research year.” This study, which began in the aftermath of a serious school bus accident in Huntsville, Alabama, was undertaken when, “Alabama lawmakers then allocated more than $300,000 for a three-year pilot program in 10 school districts. The study, conducted through UA’s University Transportation Center for Alabama, will provide information about school buses with seat belts for possible adoption throughout the nation.” http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/08/090807165340.htm

The debate, here in Connecticut and across the nation, will almost certainly not be resolved in the near future. For now, our hearts go out to the families in Rocky Hill; “Five students on the bus were from Rocky Hill, according to that town's superintendent of schools, Jeffrey Villar, who said grief counselors will be available to students Monday morning.”
 

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