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Fight Predicted for School Bus Seat Belt Money

Posted November 19, 2007

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— Installing seat belts on school buses could create a funding fight among North Carolina school districts and law enforcement agencies.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Mary Peters on Monday announced proposed federal regulations that would mandate three-point seat belts – lap and shoulder restraints – be phased in on all new smaller buses nationwide within three years from when the regulation is adopted.

A standard would be created for seat belts on larger buses, but Peters said states and individual school districts would decide whether to have them installed in new buses.

Schools could use federal highway safety money to offset the cost of adding seat belts, which amounts to about $10,000 per bus, Peters said.

North Carolina receives about $10 million to $12 million in federal highway safety funds, said Darrell Jernigan, director of the Governor's Highway Safety Program. The money is used for programs like Click It or Ticket to promote seat belt usage and also to support local law enforcement agencies and their traffic safety campaigns, he said.

State officials estimated it would cost about $8.6 million per year to phase in seat belts on new large school buses.

Jernigan said that adding school bus seat belts to the list of competing requests for the highway safety money would likely create a fight statewide over the limited allocation.

The state does not pay for smaller buses under 10,000 pounds that will soon be required to have lap and shoulder belts. Child-care facilities and YMCAs most commonly use those buses, but local school districts sometimes buy them to use as activity buses.

Some parents and officials said school bus seat belts should be a priority.

"I think it's worth it. This should've been done a long time ago," said Kimberly Brewer, a former school bus driver whose eighth-grade daughter was injured in a Nov. 7 bus wreck near Selma.

One school bus rear-ended another bus on the 1500 block of N.C. Highway 96 near Selma. Sixty-five students from Selma Middle School and Selma Elementary School were on the two buses at the time of the wreck, and 26 of them had to be taken to nearby hospitals with an assortment of injuries.

Students would have suffered fewer and less serious injuries in the wreck if the two buses had been equipped with seat belts, Brewer said.

"I think we shouldn't wait until something serious happens," she said. "Children (are) our precious cargo, and I don't understand why we don't have that."

California, Florida, Louisiana, New Jersey and New York require seat belts on school buses, although Louisiana hasn't yet funded its program.

North Carolina has been studying the effectiveness of the restraints for four years and has equipped 14 buses statewide with three-point belts. The state already fulfills a second federal recommendation – raising the height of seat backs to 24 inches.

"I really think parents expect belts on buses," said Derek Graham, chief of the Transportation Services Section in the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction, adding that bus drivers like seat belts because they help with discipline.

"A fatality on a school bus is an extremely rare event, and more often than not, it involves a catastrophe – a bus crashing off an overpass, being hit by a snow plow, being hit by a train," Graham said.

School buses are considered among the safest forms of transportation because of their size, visibility and existing safety features like reinforced sides and padded, high-back seats that are placed close together.

Since 1990, 16 North Carolina students have been killed in accidents involving school buses. Only three of those deaths occurred when students were in the school bus. A gravel truck ran into a school bus in Mecklenburg County in 1991, killing two 12-year-olds and a 13-year-old.

The 13 other deaths happened when students were hit by school buses or other vehicles.

Between 2004 and 2006, 819 students were injured in school bus accidents, with the total declining each year during that period. There were 3,317 accidents involving school buses statewide over the three years.

More than 12 percent of the state's school bus accidents took place in Wake County in 2005. That rate was surpassed only by Mecklenburg County – then the largest school system in the state – with 20.5 percent of the accidents. Durham County came in third, with 5.8 percent.

Guilford and Forsyth were the only other counties to claim more than 3 percent of the state's school bus accidents.


About 750,000 students ride school buses to and from school in North Carolina every day.

A crash in Alabama last year in which four teens died after their school bus plunged over an overpass rekindled the seat belt debate that led to Peters' Monday announcement of the proposed federal standard.

State Sen. Jim Forrester, R-Gaston, wants to avoid such incidents in North Carolina and is pushing a bill that to require seat belts in buses statewide.

"I think it's worth it. It's a safety issue," Forrester said. "If you take and put it in seat belts, you're taking from somewhere else. I realize that because there's only a limited amount of money. But I think it's money well spent for the safety of the children in our state."

Wayne Stowe, whose 5-year-old daughter was injured in the Selma bus collision, said he doesn't think seat belts in buses are worth the cost.

"I don't think really it's necessary," Stowe said. "I just think this (accident) is a fluke."


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  • haggis basher Nov 20, 2007

    I asked my kid about this and he said no one would use them......and he's a good kid!

  • hdonthefarm Nov 20, 2007

    Seems like to me if we returned to neighborhood schools, there would be less kids riding the buses to get injured, since they could walk to school. The ones that did have to take a bus would have less miles to travel, thus less chances to be injured in a wreck.

  • Nancy Nov 20, 2007

    "Secondly $10K to put belts in each bus seem pretty pricey. Based on around 70 seats in a bus that's close to $150.00 per belt. I just put retractable shoulder/lap belts in a jeep and they were about $60.00 each retail."

    nascar, they're talking about the three point belt system, which would not be able to retrofit to existing seats, so the seats have to be replaced too. The seats that use the three belt system are higher and stiffer, no longer the well padded ones on school buses currently.

  • nascar33 Nov 20, 2007

    First I would be surprised if they were hardly ever used, there is no control on school buses today mostly because there is little or no discipline. So it would probably be a huge waste of money. Secondly $10K to put belts in each bus seem pretty pricey. Based on around 70 seats in a bus that's close to $150.00 per belt. I just put retractable shoulder/lap belts in a jeep and they were about $60.00 each retail.

    I think I want to open a seatbelt manufacturing plant.

  • Nancy Nov 20, 2007

    "from the article, "The money is used for programs like Click It or Ticket to promote seat belt usage." So what they are saying is that the money cannot go to providing seat belts, because it has to go toward telling people to use seat belts??? Does this make sense to anyone, because it sure doesn't to me!"

    T-Man - there is a set amount of federal dollars given to the state to use for vehicular safety issues, currently that money is being spent by police entities. If all of it was redirected to retrofitting the state's school buses, not only would it not be enough to get that single job done, all the other programs it funds would get none.

    Now, click it or ticket is a worthwhile program as the majority of vehicular deaths that COULD be prevented with the use of seat belts can be impacted by that program. Spending millions to retrofit buses or buy more expensive buses with the new seats and three point belts will not necessarily save even one life over several years.

  • bullet656 Nov 20, 2007

    Seems to me that the seatbelt issue is a lot like crosswalks. People want them, so they are given them. Crosswalks actually make people less safe b/c they assume they are more safe (this has been researched). So we waste money to keep people happy but don't actually keep people safe, just feel safer. That's what seatbelts on buses will do. A costly measure, but maybe it will free idiot's minds of worry so that they can actually worry about stuff that is actually important.

  • bullet656 Nov 20, 2007

    grenlyn1 and likemenow, if you're kid had to stand on the bus, how is making buses more costly going to stop that? Seems like it would cause more of it, since there will probably be less buses, and less space on buses.
    i can't imagine any school bus accident going unreported, and you are a moron if you think a fatality on a school bus would go unreported. Read the facts. As stated in this article only a small handfull of deaths have occured since 1990. Of these 3 deaths, who could even say that a seat belt would have saved them, and maybe not killed others. 18 years of $8 million a year to maybe save 3 lives is stupid. That money could go to a lot better uses. Fix a large pothole for several hundred dollars and you might save a life.

  • 68_polara Nov 20, 2007

    BigUNCFan, well put.

  • BigUNCFan Nov 20, 2007

    There are deaths every year from people drinking too much water but we still drink water.

    I wanted to clarify that is not a misprint. Every year in the US there are a handful of people that die from overdrinking water. A radio station had a stunt a couple of years back where someone died from drinking too much water.

    The point is, you can die from anything so if you live outside of a bubble, you have risks.

  • BigUNCFan Nov 20, 2007

    Is this type of stuff what the lottery was for?


    This seat belt thing is a waste of money. I rode the bus 12 years and did not die. We are in the process of the sissification of America. No recess and no tag and Winter Holiday instead of Christmas.

    This whole if it saves one life business is junk. There are deaths every year from people drinking too much water but we still drink water. Same goes for driving a car. People die from skin cancer but we still go to the beach. We still allow people to smoke and drink even though people die from that stuff.

    I could go on and on.

    Like it or not, in our minds we do a risk/reward calculation and decide whether it is worth the risk or we would do nothing. Think of all of the deaths playing football and other sports (no stats but I would think at least 10 a year natioanlly with kids). But if it saves a life, we should ban all organized kids sports, correct? That is just silly.