Busing kids safely without seat belts

Intrepid Commuter

September 18, 1995

Your Intrepid One was cruising near Calvert Hall College High School in Towson when a school bus full of youngsters crossed in front of a car pulling out of a parking lot at Loch Raven Middle School.

The bus came to an abrupt stop, and many of the passengers jerked forward. No one was hurt -- so it seemed -- and the bus proceeded seconds later.

But it made us wonder: Without safety belts, what's to keep these kids from getting injured in an accident?

We regularly get calls and letters from readers complaining about the safety of school buses not equipped with seat belts. But seeing the youngsters jerk forward on that rickety yellow school bus hit home. So we made some calls to figure out what the deal is with school bus safety -- and we were surprised.

The concept of school bus "compartmentalization" -- meaning strong, well-padded seats with high backs and seat spacing to safely retain and cushion students during a crash -- makes school buses the safest form of surface transportation, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Steve Shaw, a regional manager for the National School Bus Service Inc. based in Catonsville, said safety belts on buses are used for fighting and that the driver would be hard-pressed to make sure all passengers kept them fastened.

"If everyone is sitting down like they should, they're very safe on school buses," Mr. Shaw said.

Brendy Barr, also of the National School Bus Service, said safety belts are restrictive in the aftermath of an accident when youngsters -- especially very young students -- try to unbuckle them and leave the bus.

Small, van-type school buses that weigh less than 10,000 pounds are, however, required to have safety belts as standard equipment for all occupants, according to NHTSA. Maryland has no law that requires seat belts on school buses. Still, many parents do not allow their youngsters to ride the school buses.

"What's to stop them [youngsters] from sliding off the seat during a sharp turn?" asked Gwen Windell, a Randallstown mother of two elementary school students. "It's just not worth the risk."

Unbelted cops

And while we're talking about safety belts, the most guilty group of nonusers is police officers. Have you ever seen a police officer with his seat belt -- harness strap included -- fastened? We surely haven't.

Gloria Eddins of Havre de Grace brought the issue to our attention after she saw a Baltimore City officer zoom past her in East Baltimore without his belt fastened.

"It's most hypocritical that police officers, the ones who are supposed to set the example for safety, routinely ride without seat belts," Ms. Eddins said. "It seems as though they need the most safety while driving."

We thought officers did not have to fasten their belts because it might hinder them if they had to hurriedly leave their cruisers. Wrong.

Officer Steven Lurz, driving supervisor at the education and training division of the Baltimore Police Academy, said officers are taught to wear seat belts, as are civilian motorists.

What really irked the Intrepid One recently was when we saw a city police officer stop motorists on busy Edmondson Avenue near Edmondson Village for not wearing seat belts. He wasn't issuing tickets, just pulling over cars and telling them to buckle up.

The penalty for not wearing a seat belt is a $25 ticket and no

points on the driver's record. But for the seat belt law to be enforced, motorists must be stopped for another violation, according to Michael J. McKelvin of the state police. "We write a lot of seat belt tickets," Mr. McKelvin said. "It's one of our top five."

Wheelchair driver

A couple of times a week, a man in a wheelchair rides in the southbound lane of Reisterstown Road during the morning rush hour. He moves slowly and takes up a good chunk of the right lane.

Traffic backs up behind him, and cars change lanes -- often recklessly -- to avoid him.

So what do you do?

Call a police officer to get him removed?

Cut in front of him and slow down so he'll have to get on the sidewalk?

Ride his bumper and lean on your horn?

Complain that traffic was a mess and take the day off?

"We just try to be as patient as possible," said Roberta Hostell, who travels daily on Reisterstown Road en route to the State Office Building. "I don't think anyone wants to startle him or upset him, but it does slow things down a lot."

Jo Ann Scarborough, a licensed instructor at a Towson driving school, said traffic should reduce speed and keep a car length behind the wheelchair.

"I'd slightly tap on the horn to let him know that I'm behind him," Ms. Scarborough said. "It could be dangerous."

The person in the wheelchair uses his feet to propel himself and rests frequently in the street.

Maj. Alvin A. Winkler of the city Police Department's traffic division said it's illegal for a disabled person who uses a wheelchair to be in the street. "The motorists certainly can't hit him," Major Winkler said. "The law allows police officers a degree of discrepancy."

He said that if the person is in the street only once, motorists should be patient and go around him. "If you see him regularly, go to the nearest district and advise them of the problem," Major Winkler said.

Keep in touch

Write to the Intrepid Commuter, c/o The Baltimore Sun, P.O. Box 1377, Baltimore 21278. Please include your name and telephone number so we can reach you if we have any questions.

Or use your Touch-Tone phone to call Sundial, The Baltimore Sun's telephone information service, at 783-1800, and enter Ext. 4305. Call 268-7736 in Anne Arundel County.

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