School buses are no place for standing-room-only

Comment

September 19, 1999|By Mike Burns

SCHOOLS ARE OPEN, so the usual hassles over school buses have begun.

One parent wants her child to ride the bus even though the home is just inside a one-mile radius of the school, technically putting her home in the walking zone.

Another worries that children riding school buses should be wearing seat belts -- to reinforce the message to youngsters about buckling up as much as to better protect them in a possible mishap.

Other parents complained that children were forced to stand in the aisles of buses during the first two weeks of school. It's not a comfort issue, but a safety concern.

This last problem is due to changing enrollments . Too many unexpected pupils from some residential areas caused buses to become overcrowded. Enrollment projections and bus arrangements are made in the summer, often without knowledge of new arrivals to the area.

Problem corrected

By last week, James Doolan, Carroll County school transportation supervisor, said that the problem had been corrected, and no child on a bus was without a seat.

The total number of school buses is not inadequate. The issue is realigning the routes to make the most of the fleet. As any parent knows, the scheduled pickup and drop-off times usually change in the first weeks anyway.

Bus schedules are set to make maximum use of the vehicles. Just a few more kids living along the route can result in bus crowding and the need for readjustments. Sykesville and Oklahoma Road middle schools, in the South Carroll growth area, have seen most of the bus crowding this year.

But the safety issue persists. Children who have to stand in school bus aisles are at greater risk than their seated schoolmates. Remember the school bus driver's invariable cry to young passengers: "Please sit down, now!" Or more blunt words to that effect. Children are to be seated for their own safety.

No seat belts?

Should these seated children also be required to wear seat belts?

It's a question that school districts across the nation are asking.

California recently enacted a law that requires lap-shoulder belts on new school buses. Lap belts are required on new buses in New York and New Jersey. Similar legislative bills have been introduced in more than 30 states.

But the opposing view points to much evidence that lap seat belts on buses can pose more harm than no belts at all. Children are a greater risk for head injuries and abdominal damage with lap belts, several studies in the United States and Canada have found. Padded, high-back bench seats to cushion school bus passengers in emergencies have been required in this country for 20 years.

The best of existing technology seems to be a three-point shoulder-lap belts. But they require redesigned seats to securely hold the belt system, resulting in reduced impact-absorbing padding of seat backs. That involves much greater expense. Like lap belts, they pose a problem for children to unbuckle in emergencies.

The future solution may lie with padded arm rests and contoured seats, which can restrain young passengers in an accident but allow them to easily get out.

That's one of the ideas in a report on school bus safety by the National Transportation Safety Board to be released later this month. But shoulder-lap belts, with added padding, get the board's strongest recommendation.

What studies show

It may run counter to conventional thinking, but scientific studies have not found that seat belts in school buses save lives. Lap belts should be most effective in rollovers and side or rear crashes, but most bus accidents are frontal, the kind where lap belts are potentially harmful. That's a contrary conclusion that's difficult to digest in a society that has been ingrained with the idea that seat belts must be used for traffic safety.

The argument that children need the seat-belt message reinforced in their daily trips to school has merit. But it can't outweigh the conclusion that lap belts would pose greater safety risks for children on school buses.

The issue for Maryland counties, which are among the largest school districts (in area) in the nation, is increasingly important. About 80 percent of Carroll school children ride the bus to and from school (or are eligible but are regularly driven by parents).

That large percentage of bus riders leads to further complications. Such as school closings based on bus driving weather conditions. Such as parents who feel their children should be able to ride the bus because the kid a couple blocks away does.

As new schools are built in population centers, more students may be able to commute by foot. But tiny neighborhood schools are not economically feasible and a large number of children will always have to ride the bus.

School buses are still the safest mode of transportation.

It's up to us to make that daily trip as safe as possible.

Mike Burns is The Sun's editorial writer in Carroll County.

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