When word came down from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration last week that the longstanding preference for school buses without three-point lap/shoulder seat belts was being reversed, one Connecticut town could say: been there, done that. Wilton, which has about 4,200 school children on busses each day, has had the three-point safety belt system installed on its school busses since August 2012. They apparently were the first in the state to do so.
Earlier this year, Massachusetts legislators considering a requirement for seat belts on school buses were told that passenger restraint systems would add between $11,000 and $13,000 to the cost of buses, which currently range from $90,000 to $105,000.
Frank Underhill, executive director of the School Transportation Association of Massachusetts, which includes more than 100 school bus contractors and municipalities who run their own school buses, told members of the legislature’s Public Safety Committee that six states require seat belts on school buses, but said that none of those states has fully implemented the requirement, due to a lack of funding.
Those states - California, Florida, Louisiana, New Jersey, New York and Texas -- have some sort of legislation in place requiring seat belts on school buses, according to Governing magazine. The states’ laws vary in levels of enforcement; some simply require two-point seat belts to be present on school buses, while others require that all passengers use the more secure, three-point belts. Connecticut does not have a statewide requirement.
Wilton Transportation Coordinator Mary Channing isn’t aware of other Connecticut communities that have followed her community’s lead. The town included the three-point belt as an option in their most recent RFP, in 2012, for student transportation, and the winning bid included the lap/shoulder belts. It is not a board policy.
Statewide, nearly 500,000 children are transported on buses to and from school each day. National policy, based on numerous studies, has been that buses are designed to be inherently safer than cars because of the high backs/fronts creating a “compartmentalization” and providing better crash protection. It has been noted, however, that when students lean outside the seating “compartment” – which can occur as students, backpacks, winter gear, overcrowd seats – their level of safety diminishes.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is endorsing three-point seat belts on school buses for the first time. NHTSA Administrator Mark Rosekind acknowledged that the agency "has not always spoken with a clear voice on the issue of seat belts on school buses. The position of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is that seat belts save lives," Rosekind said. "That is true whether in a passenger car or in a big yellow bus. And saving lives is what we are about. So NHTSA's policy is that every child on every school bus should have a three-point seat belt."
The issue of seat belts on schools buses garnered considerable attention in Connecticut in 2010 when 16-year-old Vikas Parikh was killed in a school bus accident. The Rocky Hill High School student sustained a traumatic head injury while riding a school bus that tumbled down an embankment off of I-84 after hitting another car. As a result, state lawmakers reopened the debate on whether to require Connecticut's roughly 10,000 school buses to install three-point seatbelt systems. They did not.
Instead, Public Act 10-83, created a Connecticut School Bus Seat Belt account to help school districts respond to the cost of equipping school buses with lap/shoulder (3-point) seat belts, should they choose to do so. In June 2010, the office of then-Gov. M. Jodi Rell announced that “under the law, the Department of Motor Vehicles will begin offering a program in July 2011 that offsets a portion of the sales tax bus companies pay for school buses equipped with three-point seatbelts. The program will be funded through a $50 increase in the fees paid for restoring suspended or revoked driver’s licenses, commercial driver’s licenses and vehicle registrations. The program will run through at least 2018. During the 2018 legislative session, lawmakers will hold a hearing on the program and decide whether it should be continued.”
Said Rell: “This law provides a modicum of state assistance to districts wanting to add seat belts to their fleet but does not impose a costly new mandate on all districts –- striking a good balance between incentive and choice.”
It is unclear if funds have accumulated in that account, or if any towns or companies have sought the assistance. Some published reports suggest that the funds have been diverted to other uses in recent years. The law requires that “school district participating in the program shall provide written notice concerning the availability and proper use of such seat belts to a parent or legal guardian of each student who will be transported on such school bus,” and that participating school districts “instruct such students on the proper use, fastening and unfastening of such seat belts.”
A 2010 editorial in The Hartford Courant noted that “A study of emergency room visits by Columbus (Ohio) Children's Hospital found 17,000 school bus injuries in the U.S. every year — two to three times National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates, which use only a sampling of data and exclude field trips like the one on which Vikas Parikh died. Seat belts work best in rollover and side-impact collisions in which students are thrown out of their seats, as Vikas was. The American Academy of Pediatrics supports restraints on buses.”
The website of the Connecticut School Transportation Association (COSTA) points out that a three-point system, “similar to the ones in automobiles, works with compartmentalization and, according to NHTSA, could provide some additional benefit to occupants of school buses, if it is consistently and properly used. But the federal government does not believe that a mandate for lap/shoulder belts is justified, because the safety benefits are very small and the cost is high. Furthermore, there are several potential negative factors, such as children wearing the shoulder portion improperly, that could mitigate the benefits of the restraints and result in a net loss of safety.”
The organization goes on to “emphasize that school buses without restraints are still safer than any other current mode of transportation—whether it’s walking to school, riding bikes, or traveling in parents’ cars,” adding “the biggest mistake that districts could make is to reduce the number of students who qualify for transportation in order to afford new buses with restraint systems. Any possible benefit of the restraints would be completely overshadowed by the increased risk to students who were denied school bus transportation.”
Last week, however, the Parikh family was among those lauding the federal change and looking for follow-through from Connecticut policy makers. Vikas’ mother told NBC Connecticut, “If it can save at least one life, it is worth it.”