School-bus safety

NTSB study: The agency is correct in its conclusion that seat belts are not the answer.

September 27, 1999

THOUGH IT MAY seem contrary to conventional thinking, the National Transportation Safety Board was dead right in refusing to recommend seat belts be installed on the nation's school buses. More head and internal injuries to children would likely result from the use of belts, the board concluded after three years of study.

The panel, which has no legal authority to implement its recommendations, instead called for safer school bus design.

The closely spaced seats and high, padded seat backs required since 1977 make school buses the safest mode of transportation, the board noted. School buses -- unlike cars -- rely on compartmental construction that places passengers like eggs in a carton to absorb energy and reduce injury. But improvements -- including padded ceilings and arm rests and molded seats for safer containment of young bus passengers -- were recommended.

The strongest argument for seat belts in school buses is the behavioral issue. A generation of children has been taught to buckle up in the family car. It's inconsistent, advocates say, to teach youngsters to use safety belts in all vehicles but school buses.

Yet a similar generation has grown up accepting the difference between riding in a car and in a school bus, with auto seat belt use continuing to rise. Kids are more adaptable than many people think.

Four states require seat belts for new buses; a California law awaits the governor's signature. Some U.S. school districts are using them. So the issue will not fade with this NTSB report. But if the goal is to provide safer transportation of school children, seat belts on today's buses are not the answer.

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