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Seat Belt Debate


News: Office of the Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs

NHTSA 37-02
Tuesday, May 7, 2002

NHTSA Sends School Bus Report to Congress 

Every year, the nation's 450,000 public school buses travel more than 4.3 billion miles to transport 23.5 million children to and from school and school-related activities, the agency said. In comparison with other forms of transportation, the report shows that students are nearly eight times safer riding in a school bus than in cars. The fatality rate for school buses is 0.2 fatalities per 100 million vehicle miles traveled (VMT) compared to 1.5 fatalities per 100 million VMT for cars.

This safety record is a result of the Department of Transportation's requirements for compartmentalization on large school buses, and lap belts plus compartmentalization on small school buses. Compartmentalization is the name for the protective envelope created by strong, closely-spaced seats that have energy-absorbing high seat backs that protect occupants in the event of a crash.
The new NHTSA report concluded that requiring lap belts on large, new School buses would appear to have little, if any, benefit in reducing serious-to-fatal injuries in severe frontal crashes. In rare circumstances, tests indicate that in some severe frontal crashes there may be increased risk of serious neck injuries and possibly abdominal injury among young passengers wearing lap belts.

The Great Buckle Debate ... a discussion about seat belts and school buses 
At Issue: the school bus seat belt controversy 

It seems like a simple enough thing, doesn't it? Not to mention common sense. If we're buckling up in our cars everyday, shouldn't we be buckling up on our school buses too?

And yet the answer is not easy as the question. Fact of the matter is, in a vehicle like a car, seat belts do save lives. But a school bus is not a car. In fact, they are very different vehicles different as night and day.

And it's those differences that help make a compelling argument against the use of seat belts in a school bus environment.

Unlike the family car - which carries it's passengers low to the road and in the same plane as a colliding vehicle - a school bus carries it's riders above the impact zone and away from the engine.

So school bus passengers don't face the same dangers of impact as their counterparts driving in cars might. And they don't share the same inside hazards either. In fact, in a head-on collision , school bus occupants are likely to strike only the seat in front of them.
Today's School Bus: the safest form of road transportation 

Today's school bus is a far cry from what many of us remember as kids. Seats are higher now, with significantly thicker padding, and that padding now extends around the entire seat, eliminating the metal bar of earlier buses. They're closer now too, and with less room between them, the chances of additional injuries are reduced. It's something called "compartmentalization." And what it means is that each seat and the rear of the seat in front of it forms a natural barrier. Each serves as a separate "compartment," guarding against severe injury and ejection of the passenger. In a frontal impact, the passenger is thrown against the padded rear of the seat in front of him or her. Compartmentalization is the ideal protection for our children because it is "passive" protection. (Kind of like air bags in cars.) There is no need for compliance or education of the children.. it's simply a natural function of the bus itself.
Let's Make It Safer: and separate the fact from the fiction 

In a head-on collision, a lap-belted child in a school bus is thrown forward, but the lap belt holds the lower torso in place...forcing the upper body to pivot about the belt. This puts the brunt of the impact on the head and neck as they strike the rear of the seat in front of them. (OUCH !) The backlash of the collision then forces the head and neck to snap backward. (Double OUCH !!) A situation with great potential for a serious injury. Unbuckled passengers, by comparison, sustain far fewer injuries - primarily because the crash forces are spread out over a larger area of the body.

Crash tests conducted by Transport Canada, the Canadian counterpart to our own Department of Transportation, clearly indicated that lap-belted dummies received higher head injury scores than un-belted dummies in a frontal bus collision.

So, if seat belts are not the answer, WHAT IS? The answer is outside , in a 10-foot perimeter surrounding the bus...a place known as The Danger Zone . On average, the number of fatal injuries occurring outside the bus is four times greater than the number occurring inside the bus. A recent study reviewing school bus fatalities over a 10-year period found:

  • The greatest number of fatalities occurred by the right rear tire of the students own bus.
  • The second most deadly area was at the left front of the bus, where the deaths were caused by passing motorists failing to heed the stop-lights and sign of the bus.
  • 15% of the fatalities occurred by the left front wheel .
  • 10% occurred by the left rear wheel; while
  • Another 5% occurred at the right front end, where the student was killed by a passing motorist.
Clearly then, a major player in the arena of school fatalities is education . Educating our school bus drivers, our children, and perhaps even more importantly - passing motorists, who are frequently ignorant of the laws concerning school buses and are the greatest hazard for children riding the school buses of today.

What We Can Do... tips to increase school bus safety

Better driver and passenger education, stressing the deadly importance of the school bus "Danger Zone."
Promote rules and regulations regarding school buses and passing motorists, including increased fines and penalties for improperly passing a school bus during loading and unloading.
And keep in mind: At 8 times safer to ride than the family car, the school bus is the world's safest form of over-the-road transportation.
This information was supplied by:

The School Bus Association
355 North 21st Street
Suite 202
Camp Hill, PA 17011 

Yellow school buses: the most misunderstood vehicle on the road today. 
by Cal Lemon, President of of Executive Enrichment

I run into people all the time who say, “I won’t let my grandson ride the school bus because they just are not safe…did you see the 6 p.m. news last night?” Or, “Why don’t they have seat belts on school buses? If seat belts are good enough for our cars, why aren’t our kids belted in?” The problem with the school bus conversations is no one is dealing with facts, just feelings. Here are the facts: There are 50 million children in private and public school in the United States. Approximately half of these students, 25 million, are transported on yellow school buses each day. These numbers mean school buses travel 4.3 billion miles each school year with 100 million boardings and deboardings each day. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, school buses are only involved in .03 percent of vehicular crashes that involve a fatality. Specifically, there are approximately 20-25 people who lose their lives each year as a result of a school bus accident. Approximately four to five of this statistic are children who lose their lives as a passenger in a school bus. Put a pencil and paper to these numbers. According to the facts, the yellow school bus is the safest vehicle on the road in the United States. Why don’t you know that? You don’t know about those numbers because the only time you hear about school buses is when one is rolled over in a ditch and covered by your local TV news station on the 6 p.m. news. To be honest, no media outlet is excited about reporting another safe trip. And, what about those seat belts? Four years ago, NHTSA (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration) conducted exhaustive testing on both “lap belts” (the kind you will find on an airplane) and “lap-shoulder” belts (the three point harness system mandated on automobiles). The lap belt had two liabilities. In a 30 mph rear impact test, the lap belts either resulted in severe abdominal or spine injuries and/or caused the child to “submarine” under the seat in front of him/her. The “lap-shoulder” belts certainly proved to be much safer than the lap belts but resulted in minimal safety advantages. Specifically, NHTSA concluded its findings with this statement, “…widespread use of the lap-shoulder harness may result in saving one life per year.” And one life is worth it all. Maybe. The cost of putting lap-shoulder belts on all school buses may actually increase fatalities and injuries of our children. Follow this reasoning. Seat belts will increase the cost of a school bus, right now, by about $8,000.00. If your child’s school district has 100 buses that means almost a million dollar increase for pupil transportation. If a school district has to choose between books or buses, buses will always lose. Therefore, the cost of providing lap-shoulder belts will result in fewer buses and fewer buses mean more of our children go to school in private cars, walk or ride a bicycle. And here are the irritable numbers that is the bottom line of this column. It is statistically 100 times safer to put a child on a yellow school bus than it is to drive your child to school. It is statistically 50 times safer to provide a yellow school bus ride than it is to allow your child to walk or ride a bike to that school building. (If want to look at my research on this topic, please look at the book I wrote, Unreported Miracles: What You Probably Do Not Know About Your Child’s Yellow School Bus.) We all live our lives according to “the numbers.” Think about it. If you went to the airport tomorrow to get on a flight and the agent behind the counter, after handing you a boarding pass, said, “Good luck,” you may pause and say, “Pardon me, ‘good luck,’ what does that mean?” If the agent said, “Well, 35% of all our flights have crashed in the last year,” you probably will ask for a refund and get out the road atlas. I am appealing for the public to judge the safety of yellow school bus transportation on the numbers, not the latest video footage on the 6 p.m. news.