Local News

Experts Divided on Seat Belts in School Buses

Posted November 21, 2006 5:23 p.m. EST
Updated November 21, 2006 6:08 p.m. EST

A school bus in Huntsville, Ala., that crashed through an interstate exit ramp wasn't equipped with seat belts. Most states, including North Carolina, don't require them, but would they keep children safer?

About 13,000 school buses roll out across North Carolina everyday. Most are kid-packed, with no seat belts to be found.

"It's 13 times more safe to ride a school bus to school than any other form of transportation," said Durham Public Schools transportation director Scott Denton.

Denton said he couldn't remember a student in the area being severely hurt in a school bus accident. Denton said that the seats on buses are designed to absorb impact in a passive restraint system.

"The structure of the bus in general, beginning with seat back heights and padding on seats, make the impact of an accident much more passenger friendly," Denton said.

North Carolina's Department of Public Instruction has tested lap-shoulder belts for buses in a dozen different counties over the last three years.

"There's been a number of issues that have come up—some good, some bad," said Derek Graham with the Department of Public Instruction.

Seat belts change the configuration of the school bus. Seating capacity is limited. Fewer seats would mean more buses would be needed. It would be costly, because belted buses typically cost $8,000 to $10,000 more than buses without that feature.

Also, there's the problem of policing the wearing of the belts.

"It may be no surprise that elementary school students are much more likely to wear the belts," said Graham. "Middle and high schoolers don't show much interest."

The three-year study has shown seat belts help out when it comes to discipline issues, because they keep rowdy kids in their seats. However, it's still not clear if they make a difference when it comes to safety.

Making seat belts on school buses mandatory would require a vote by state lawmakers.

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