Belts on the bus

November 22, 2006

The deaths of four teen-agers in Monday's horrifying Alabama school bus crash is likely to renew the debate over whether school buses should be equipped with safety belts. A recent study found that school bus-related accidents injure 17,000 U.S. children each year. That's double previous estimates that were based solely on crash data. Most of the injuries are not life threatening, but require trips to emergency rooms. Safety advocates suspect many of these injuries might be prevented if buses were required to have 3-point shoulder and belt restraints.

To many, it seems downright bizarre that the safety of young children is entrusted to big yellow buses that lack passenger seat belts or air bags. But school buses have an admirable safety record and children are far more likely to be injured or killed in a car accident than on a bus. Still, 17,000 injuries can't be ignored; particularly when the chief reason buses don't have seat belts now is the cost of installing them.

It's one thing for buses not to have lap belts - the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has recommended against them because they can cause internal injuries to small children in a crash - but 3-point systems are a different story. Bus manufacturers recently began offering such restraints as an option, but they add about $2,000 to the purchase price of a new bus. They can also limit bus capacity (three children can't be so easily squeezed into a seat with two seat belts).

There are numerous advantages to adding 3-point restraints: They would reinforce the safety belt lesson to children who are required to use them in cars (a kind of carryover safety effect). If used, they would keep children in seats, reducing driver distraction. And most important, they would reduce the severity of injuries in most accidents. But there are also some key disadvantages: There is no guarantee they'd be used and they may not be particularly cost-effective (if only because serious school bus accidents like the plunge off the highway overpass in Huntsville are so rare).

The federal government is unlikely to mandate school bus safety belts anytime soon, but a handful of states have begun requiring them, as have some school boards across the country. In Maryland, it should be up to county school systems to decide whether the benefits are worth the cost. It's an idea that deserves to be taken seriously - but not necessarily forced on any jurisdiction.

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