Tom Crouser: Seat belts in buses complicated issue (Opinion)

Isn’t it obvious that seat belts are needed in school buses? Yet, there are no state or federal regulations mandating them. And the West Virginia Department of Education doesn’t require them on newly purchased buses. What’s up? The issue is more complex than it seems. Here’s my take.

The loss or serious injury of any child is too great of a cost. That’s a given. I’m familiar with it. My adult stepdaughter was killed in a one-car rollover accident while not wearing a seat belt. Had she worn a seat belt, it probably would have saved her life.

That said, how big is the school bus issue? How many could be saved? How much would it cost?

On average, across the country seven children and six bus drivers die in accidents each year, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. That’s out of about 25 million students transported each day, about half of the total K-12 population in the United States. And there hasn’t been a school bus passenger death in West Virginia for more than 60 years, according to Kristin Anderson of the West Virginia Department of Education.

That’s because today’s school buses are safer than passenger vehicles. Students are 70 times more likely to arrive safely than if we drove them ourselves. And school buses are the most regulated vehicles on the road.

Over the past 30 years, all buses have been designed with “seat compartmentalization.” Tall back seats are padded with energy-absorbing material covering all metal parts. Reduced spacing between seats constrains riders within their “compartment” during most accidents.

Additionally, large school buses are very heavy, which reduces the effects of many crashes, compared to a normal vehicle.

On the other hand, advocates for seat belts, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, find in their testing and data from accidents that compartmentalization is not completely effective — especially during side crashes with other heavy vehicles and rollovers.

There are doubters. School bus drivers largely say it will be nearly impossible to assure everyone has their belts properly fastened. And they worry that, if a bus must be evacuated in an emergency, students might be trapped by the belts. There also are concerns that some could use the heavy buckles like a weapon and hurt each other.

What does the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration say? For years, they only recommended compartmentalization. However, after more recent studies, they concluded “current compartmentalization is incomplete,” because passengers don’t always remain completely within the seating compartment. However, they didn’t issue a formal mandate on the matter, instead recommending seat belts but allowing states to decide for themselves.

Cost and benefit appear to be the stumbling block. I talked with Charles Vits, an engineer and patent holder of SafeGuard, a manufacturer providing three-point seat belts. He confirmed the oft-cited $7,000 to $10,000 additional cost of belting up new buses.

That seemed high. Why so much? Vits explained that the usual seating option accommodates three smaller students, or two larger ones. He said each belt is required to withstand 3,000-pounds of force at the lap, as well as the shoulder, or 6,000 pounds per student, and yet remain attached after a crash. As an additional safety factor, row seats are designed typically for 20,000 pulling-pound capacity each. There are 20 to 26 row seats per bus. So, it adds up.

Now, how many school buses are there? A National Association for Pupil Transportation white paper puts the number at 480,000.

Doing the math using the low estimate of $7,000 per bus, seat belts in all would come out to $3.36 billion nationally, which would be paid by us.

Opponents note that installing seat belts won’t guarantee the six students would be saved each year. Advocates argue that this is a small price to pay.

Now, it’s your turn. What do you think? Tell the state school board. Go to wvde.state.wv.us/policies and post your opinion prior to 4 p.m., Nov. 12.