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To belt or not to belt? That is the question

Jul 31, 2018 04:21PM ● Published by Jana Klopsch

Currently seat belts on buses are only available for students with special needs. (Jet Burnham/City Journals)

By Jet Burnham | j.burnham@mycityjournals.com 

Following a recent school bus tragedy in New Jersey, the issue of school bus safety is under renewed scrutiny. The Federal Transportation Safety Board released a statement in May urging school districts to install seat belts on buses. 

The issue is not new to Utah. Utah Rep. Craig Hall, of West Valley, proposed a bill in 2016 to require seat belts on Utah school buses. 

“We require, by law, for all children and all adults in our own personal vehicles to wear seat belts,” said Hall. “And we can be fined as parents if our kids don’t have their seat belts on. But for some reason, we deem it perfectly acceptable to put kids in buses with no seat belts at all.” 

Herb Jensen, Jordan School District director of transportation, thinks the idea of putting seat belts on school buses is an emotional issue. 

“A lot of people think that if it’s the right thing for their minivan, then it should be the right thing for a school bus, but that isn’t necessarily the case,” he said. 

Jensen is confident in the engineering and design of school buses to protect passengers without a restraint through compartmentalization, protecting students with closely spaced seats with tall, energy-absorbing seat backs. 

Hall said through his research, he found compartmentalization is ineffective in rollover or side impact crashes or when kids aren’t sitting appropriately. 

“Students are tossed about the interior of the bus like clothes in a dryer,” he said. 

In contrast, when a child is buckled in, he said they are far less likely to be injured and can evacuate easily with the click of a button. 

“An uninjured child can move more quickly than an injured or unconscious or dead child,” he said. 

One of Jensen’s concerns about seat belts is they would exacerbate the situation if children can’t get out of them independently or if they are stuck high in the air after a rollover. 

Jensen said fires on buses are more common. He believes restraints would impede a quick evacuation, especially for young children. 

In his experience, he also believes students would play around and misuse seat belts, causing needless injuries. 

Jensen said facts and data support that seat belts on buses is not the right answer.

“School buses are extremely safe already,” he said. “It would be hard to justify the expense because it’s extremely unlikely that a child is going to lose their life if they’re on the inside of a school bus.” 

Jensen noted there hasn’t been a casualty inside a Jordan District bus for more than 80 years. 

“I would daresay there’s not a safer vehicle on the road than a school bus,” he said. “You don’t want to run into a school bus because you’ll lose.” 

Jensen cites statistics from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which reports out of 324,710 motor vehicle fatalities from 2006–2015, only five were passengers on a school bus. 

“We transport 15,000 kids twice a day and drive millions of miles a year on our buses,” said Jensen. “Although we do have accidents, we don’t have casualties with the occupants of the bus. I think that data speaks for itself.” 

Jensen said if state or federal legislation passes, the district will comply.

Hall said he is monitoring the situation to see what happens on the federal level before he initiates another bill in the next Utah legislative session. 

“Eventually, this is going to happen,” said Hall. “And unfortunately, sometimes it takes a tragic accident for the seat belts to be put into the school buses.” 

According to FTSB, at least 29 states have introduced school bus seat belt legislation in the last year, but high costs have been a roadblock for many. Hall estimates only about six states have school bus seat belt regulations. 

To reduce costs, Hall said any bill he initiates will require seat belts on new buses only.

The National Transportation Safety Board also recommended requiring collision-avoidance systems and automatic emergency brakes on new school buses, citing that most bus accidents are caused by human error.

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