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Changes to School Bus Seat Belts, Backs Proposed

U.S. Secretary of Transportation Mary Peters on Monday proposed improved safety standards for school buses, including lap-and-shoulder seat belts and higher seat backs.

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MORRISVILLE — U.S. Secretary of Transportation Mary Peters on Monday proposed improved safety standards for school buses, including lap-and-shoulder seat belts and higher seat backs.

"School buses are designed to protect children, and they do their job well. But any design can be improved upon," Peters said in a news conference at Morrisville Elementary School, which has been part of a pilot project in North Carolina to measure the effectiveness of seat belts on school buses.

"Our proposed rule will make children safer, will put parents at ease and will give communities a clearer picture of how to protect students," she said.

The proposal calls for three-point seat belts – lap and shoulder restraints – on all new buses smaller than 10,000 pounds within three years. School districts would be allowed to choose whether to design the belts into larger buses that are purchased after that time, Peters said.

Smaller buses, which are more prone to rollovers than larger buses, have had lap belts installed since 1977 under federal guidelines.

Federal highway safety money will be available to help offset the cost of having three-point belts installed on larger buses, Peters said. Adding seat belts costs about $10,000 per bus.

"We know that seat belts are a significant investment. We don't want communities to have to choose between limited funds and the safety of children," she said.

Derek Graham, chief of the Transportation Services Section in the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction, said adding seat belts only to new buses would cost the state about $8.6 million per year.

"It's very much a decision that each state – in some cases, each school district – will have to make. We've been looking for some guidance for some time, and the fact that the (transportation) secretary was here to provide some guidance is very encouraging," Graham said.

The proposed federal guidelines also would raise the required height of seat backs on all new buses from 20 inches to 24 inches high within a year, Peters said.

"Higher seat backs mean higher levels of safety for everyone on board," she said.

Research has shown that close, padded seats on school buses protect children like eggs in an egg carton, she said, but "taller passengers can be thrown over seats in a crash, hurting themselves and hurting others."

The proposed changes are the first new recommendations for school bus design in more than 15 years.

There is no federal or state law requiring school districts to have seat belts on large buses. A fatal bus crash in Alabama last year sparked the latest debate on whether that should change.

The state has been studying seat belts on buses since 2003 and has equipped 14 buses with three-point belts.

"There's been a number of issues that have come up – some good, some bad," Graham said of the state's study. "It may be no surprise elementary school students are more likely to wear the belts, middle and high schoolers don't show much interest."

Scott Denton, transportation director for Durham Public Schools, said he believes school bus seats are safe without belts.

"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. "It's 13 times more safe to ride a school bus to school than any other form of transportation."

Last year, 262 students in North Carolina were injured in crashes involving school buses. About 750,000 children statewide ride buses to and from school each day.

In addition to the installation cost, other observers said seat belts could mean fewer seats in each bus, which would require school districts to pay for operating more buses.


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