Some state legislators want school districts to outfit new school buses with seat belts that they say would protect children.
But whether restraints are really needed is unclear.
Experts say buses already are the safest form of transportation to and from school, and school representatives say that adding seat belts provides only a marginal improvement at a substantial cost.
“The whole intent is to save lives or reduce injuries on school buses,” said Rep. Roland Winburn, a Dayton Democrat co-sponsoring a bill. “As a parent, we certainly want our kids to go and to come back from school in a safe manner.”
The bill would require school districts to buy only school buses that have seat belts, starting in 2016.
Equipping the buses with seat belts would add about $7,000 to the $85,000 average cost of a school bus, said Pete Japikse, who works with school-district transportation departments for the Ohio School Boards Association.
It also would take decades for school districts to replace the 14,000 buses used last year, he said. Each year, 400 to 500 buses are replaced.
“We’re not opposed to having belts on those buses, but the question is, what have we gained with that purchase?” Japikse said.
The number of school-bus crashes in Columbus and across the state has been consistent the past three years, and fatalities inside buses are rare.
Fewer than 2,000 bus crashes were reported to law-enforcement officials in the state each year since 2011. Fewer than 200 a year occurred in Columbus.
A kindergartner killed in Muskingum County in 2010 was the first student to die in a school-bus crash in decades.
“Can we always improve safety? Absolutely,” said Bob Harmon, state transportation coordinator for the Ohio Department of Education. “Are seat belts absolute? Not really.”
Of the 1,351 people who have died in crashes involving school buses since 2002, nearly three-fourths were occupants of other vehicles, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Acknowledging that deaths have occurred, Japikse said: “That’s the worst thing that could happen. But we need to look at what’s working well and what’s not working well, and let’s fix the broken things.”
The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration said in 2008 that school buses that weigh less than 10,000 pounds must be equipped with shoulder and lap restraints. The federal government stopped short of requiring the belts on larger buses, though, because evidence that they were helpful was inconclusive, said Russ Rader, spokesman for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.
“A school bus is just a big, heavy vehicle that already protects occupants very well in a crash,” he said.
School buses have tall, padded seat backs, and seats are packed close together to compartmentalize riders.
Rader said requiring seat belts on typical school buses might deter some students who instead would choose more-dangerous alternatives, including walking or driving with a friend.
California and Texas require shoulder and lap belts in school buses. Lap belts are required in Florida, New Jersey and New York.
A proposal in Ohio failed in 2010. The bill introduced last month is modeled after that proposal.
“We don’t want to waste money, but do we want to waste an opportunity to look into it again to see if there is a safety improvement?” Winburn said.
By Rick Rouan - The Columbus Dispatch, Ohio (MCT)
©2014 The Columbus Dispatch (Columbus, Ohio)
Visit The Columbus Dispatch (Columbus, Ohio) at www.dispatch.com
Distributed by MCT Information Services