Impassioned debates about safety tend to follow every deadly wreck involving a school bus — such as Thursday’s tragedy in Morris County, New Jersey.
A bus collided with a dump truck and flipped, resulting in two deaths and 43 people injured, according to Gov. Phil Murphy. One of the deceased is a child, while the other is an adult, he said. Some of the injured were in critical condition and undergoing surgery.
Unnerved parents across the nation are undoubtedly wondering: Should our children be wearing seat belts as they ride to and from school?
In fact, federal law requires smaller school buses — those weighing 10,000 pounds or less — to have lap-shoulder belts, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. School buses above that weight are not mandated to provide seat belts for passengers.
States or local jurisdictions, however, are free to pass stricter regulations.
Seven States – Arkansas, California, Florida, Louisiana, New Jersey, New York and Texas — have passed some variation of a seat belt law for larger school buses (even if funding had not been appropriated in all cases), notes the National Conference of State Legislatures.
There are strong voices on both sides of the school bus seat belt issue.
Protected by ‘compartmentalization’
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which is part of the Department of Transportation, is responsible for keeping people safe on America’s roadways. It enforces vehicle performance standards and partnerships with state and local governments.
The agency’s regulatory documents and its website consistently maintain the position that seat belts in larger school buses are not necessary.
“There is no question that seat belts play an important role in keeping passengers safe,” the website notes. “But school buses are different by design, including a different kind of safety restraint system that works extremely well.”
As explained by the agency, large school buses are heavier than passenger cars and distribute crash forces differently, resulting in bus passengers experiencing much less crash force than those riding in passenger cars, light trucks or vans.
Since small school buses are closer to cars in both size and weight, seat belts are necessary to provide protection in those vehicles, it says. School buses weighing 10,000 pounds or less — the smaller ones — must be equipped with lap and/or lap/shoulder belts at all designated seating positions.
However, large school buses are a different matter, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. In these large vehicles, an engineering concept called compartmentalization — which translates, in practice, to strong, closely spaced seats and energy-absorbing seat backs — protects children from crashes.
The nation’s school bus fleet is 2½ times the size of all other forms of mass transportation combined, while each school day, more than 25 million American children ride in these buses to and from school, according to the National Association for Pupil Transportation, a trade association in the student transportation industry.
As to whether seat belts would increase safety in larger school buses, the trade association states that “a great deal of ambiguity remains.”
A clear opposing viewpoint to the official position of the federal government, though, is espoused by the American Academy of Pediatrics. It offers a long trail of published studies and editorials about school bus safety, including the use of seat belts, reaching all the way to the mid-1980s.
“Simply put, in a perfect world, all school buses would have seat belts in all seating positions. Sadly, it’s a more complex world than that,” said Dr. Ben Hoffman, chairman of the academy’s Council on Injury, Violence, and Poison Prevention and a practicing pediatrician at Oregon Health & Science University in Portland, describing the policy.
Hoffman said the academy’s position has always been “that seat belts on school buses would be a good thing for kids.”
‘Astronomically high’ costs
The principle of compartmentalization protects children “to a large degree,” Hoffman said. “We do know that school buses, in the grand scheme of things, tend to be very safe vehicles, They travel at relatively lower speeds most of the time, they travel predictable routes, they’re very visible, and they’re also very big so that in the event of a collision, they’re gonna tend to win.”
So, for the majority of minor crashes, “compartmentalization works,” he said, though this doesn’t mean a child provided with a seat belt or seat harness wouldn’t have a lower risk of injury.
School bus rollovers and high-speed crashes are “where we probably would see the greatest benefit” in adding belts to buses, Hoffman said. “Fortunately, those tend to be very rare.”
Ultimately, the biggest barrier to retrofitting school buses with seat belts is the cost, which would be “astronomically high,” he said. And since school buses have a lifespan of somewhere between 10 and 20 years, even if municipalities passed policies to require seat belts, they would probably be for newly purchased buses. In that scenario, it would take a long time for an entire fleet to become fully equipped.
Most recently, in May, the American Academy of Pediatrics released guidelines for students with special health care needs, including the approximately 300,000 who travel seated in wheelchairs on school buses each day. This new policy, Hoffman said, “is really about establishing guidelines to ensure that every child can be transported safely to school, regardless of their ability or disability.”
“National PTA advocates that all new school buses be equipped with three-point seat belts,” said Heidi May Wilson, a spokeswoman for the organization. Additionally, the PTA endorsed a bill introduced in the House of Representatives last year that requires the Department of Transportation to establish a program to provide school buses with seat belts and other safety features.
Generally, school buses are much safer than traveling in a private car, Hoffman said. “The majority of injuries that occur with school buses actually occur getting on and off the bus or happen around a bus rather than in a moving bus.”
Waterville man invents tool to help keep kids safe in the classroom
A man in Waterville has come up with a tool he says will keep kids safer in the classroom.
Ryan Bowman never thought he’d become an inventor, but he says he became one after seeing more and more school shootings.
“It really makes you as a parent nervous and you’re like. ‘I can’t be there with my kid at the school if something like this happens,’ because they’re unpredictable,” Bowman said.
He and his wife came up with the safety wedge.
He says he came up with it after seeing a woman post online about giving her nieces door stoppers to bring to school.
Knowing that wouldn’t keep an active shooter out, they designed the rubber wedges with a special design.
“It will actually fold up under itself preventing the door from being able to continuing to go and someone from barging in,” Bowman said.
Even while pulling on it, after it folded, the wedge wouldn’t budge.
Giving whoever put it there time to run, hide, or worst case scenario, fight.
The safety wedge is being manufactured in Maine. They’re now hoping through pre-orders they’ll be able to build a new mold to be able to make more than just one wedge at a time.
“Our mold we have right now is a one-cavity mold, so it can only make one at a time, we’re looking to get up to a four-cavity mold so four can be made at a time.
At $25 apiece, Bowman hopes it’s an inexpensive way to give parents peace of mind.
“My son does have one that he takes with him to school right now and just knowing that it’s there makes a big difference,” Bowman said.
A big difference he hopes nobody has to use.
If you’re interested in a safety wedge, click here.
They say they are taking pre-orders now and will be sending them out in April.
School bus involved in rollover crash near Tolleson
Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office is investigating after a school bus full of kids crashed and rolled on its side near Tolleson Wednesday morning.
The crash happened near Southern Avenue and El Mirage Road at about 7:30 a.m.
The school bus had six children on board who were all uninjured and released to their parents, according to Littleton Elementary School District.
The driver of the bus was taken to a local hospital with minor injuries.
Sgt. Bryant Vanegas with MCSO said the crash involved one other vehicle that ran a stop sign. The driver of that car had no injuries.
Impairment and speed do not appear to be factors in the crash, Vanegas said.
What school bus drivers can do to diminish the likelihood of bus stop tragedies following accidents in Indiana, Mississippi
School bus drivers who pick up students should be sure no vehicles are moving before motioning for the children to enter, a school safety expert said after four kids were killed in two separate accidents this week.
The children were killed as they tried to get on buses in Indiana and Mississippi. The driver in Indiana specifically told investigators that he saw the pickup truck driven by Alyssa Shepherd in the distance before Tuesday’s accident, but believed she would stop, according to WRTV.
“You don’t have kids go into the road until all traffic is stopped,” Safety Rules! founder Ted Finlayson-Schueler told the Daily News on Thursday.
According to the Commercial Driver’s License manuals in both Indiana and Mississippi, bus drivers are supposed to make a final check “to see that all traffic has stopped before completely opening the door and signaling students to approach.”
However, he emphasized that students should also be well informed on when it is safe to enter their bus.
“To be perfectly honest with you, the problem is the drivers and the students don’t have a specific plan to deal with motorists who don’t stop for the lights,” said Finlayson-Schueler, who is based in Syracuse.
He said students should be trained and educated on when to enter the bus.
Shepherd, the Indiana driver, was charged with three counts of reckless homicide in connection with the deaths of 6-year-old twin brothers Xzavier and Mason Ingle and their older sister Alivia Stahl, who was 9. Local residents had complained the bus stop was not safe, and the location has since been changed.
The bus driver has not been charged.
The following day 9-year-old Dalen Thomas was fatally struck by a truck in Mississippi as he tried to get on his bus.
And there were two more tragic incidents on Thursday. A 7-year-old boy in Pennsylvania was fatally struck by a hit-and-run driver while waiting for his bus, and five people, including three children, were struck by a car at a school bus stop in Florida. One child was critically injured.
Finlayson-Schueler said there are about 5-10 fatal incidents during the school year related to students trying to get on buses, so “to have four happen in a week is pretty statistically unusual.”
He said the National Association for Pupil Transportation is aiming to lower fatalities to zero by 2025. The organization’s conference and trade show took place this week in Missouri.
“For this to happen at same time, it shows we have a lot of work to do,” Finlayson-Schueler said.
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