Education

Experts: Modern school buses safe without seat belts

Posted December 21, 2010 3:10 p.m. EST
Updated December 21, 2010 7:42 p.m. EST

— Police have charged a school bus driver with rear-ending another bus on Monday in Cary. The chain-reaction sent 35 students to the hospital.

The type of crash is exactly what the state’s school buses are built for, said Derek Graham, chief of the Transportation Services Section in the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction.

Graham said the front-to-rear collision damaged the buses badly enough that they weren't drivable, but the students bumped into the foam-covered seatbacks, which absorbed the impact.

“Bumps and bruises, but they’re on their way. That’s exactly what we’re looking for,” Graham said.

Graham said those foam-covered seats are just one of the ways engineers have made the school bus the safest form of transportation. He said seat belts are not necessary because of this.

“They’re more safe than any other passenger vehicle. The protection there is in the bus itself,” he said.

But some parents disagree.

"We put them in our cars with seat belts and we have to, so I think that any time they're in a moving vehicle, whether it's a state vehicle or our own vehicle, that they should be required to be in seatbelts," said Deirdre Wesley.

Her son had to get 10 stitches when he fell and hit his head while wrestling on a school bus.

Another parent, Karen Dickson, said she supports installing seat belts on buses.

"There should be some safety regulations. They regulate school lunches and, you know, the kids need to have some safety on the buses with so many wrecks," Dickson said.

Installing seat belts in school buses would add about $10,000 to the cost of an $85,000 school bus.

There are other issues with seat belts, such as how to get students to wear them properly or wear them at all. Another concern is unexpected circumstances, like an emergency on the bus.

“How do you evacuate 60 elementary school kids who are buckled up? How do you get them out of a burning school bus?” said Jeff Tsai, director of the pupil transportation program at the Institute for Transportation Research and Education at North Carolina State University.

Tsai said buckling up students is something school systems need to study. He said the belts can make buses safer, but modern school buses don’t need them.

“One of those things it might be nice to have, but from a safety perspective, I’m not sure it gets us any more (safe),” Tsai said.

Six states require seat belts on school buses.

North Carolina lawmakers studied the issue a few years ago, but researchers concluded that adding seat belts would not significantly improve student safety.