NEWS- Unbuckled: No belts on local school buses

When an Alabama school bus plunged off an overpass killing four students earlier this month, the issue of seat belts on buses screamed onto newspaper front pages across the country. And in Charlottesville and Albemarle, where thousands of students each day ride school buses without seat belts, some parents are wondering whether their children are as safe as the schools would have them believe.

"I'd like to see them added," says Michelle Kupfer, whose three children ride Albemarle County school buses every day. "I think a lot of parents are wondering, 'Why don't they have them?'"

Local parents aren't the only ones wondering.

"It's a pet peeve with me," says Dennis Rooker, chair of the Albemarle Board of Supervisors, who says he's brought the issue up several times at Board meetings. "Why don't you see seat belts on school buses?" 

Rooker says he's been told in the past that studies suggest seat belts are a "mixed bag" because they could prove difficult for younger riders to use and could trap students in an accident– or cause greater injuries. 

Buses across the nation currently use "compartmentalization"– high backed, closely spaced, cushioned seats– to protect their young passengers, and research has shown school buses to be relatively safe compared to other modes of transportation.

Indeed, an October 2002 study by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says American students are "nearly eight times safer riding in a school bus than with their own parents and guardians in cars." The study concluded that lap belts in school buses would offer "little if any benefit in reducing serious-to-fatal injuries in severe frontal crashes and could in fact increase the rate of serious neck or abdominal injuries." 

Lap/shoulder belts, according to that study, could provide benefit unless misused– a possibility that could then also result in neck or abdominal injury. And if the installation of seat belts decreases bus use, that could also cause significant problems.

 "Given that school buses are the safest way to and from school, even the smallest reduction in the number of bus riders could result in more children being killed or injured when using alternative forms of transportation," concludes the study. 

But one organization says that study is flawed– and that there's something else behind the NHTSA safety recommendations.

"The bottom line is it's all about the money," says Alan Ross, head of the Coalition for School Bus Safety, an all-volunteer advocacy group. 

Ross points to a study released in November in the journal Pediatrics that reveals that each year school bus accidents send 17,000 children to the hospital– a number much higher than previously estimated.

Among the many recent school bus accidents archived by the Coalition: a July, 2006 accident on I-95 in Maryland in which a school bus carrying 60 Philadelphia students flipped, severing one child's hand and sending dozens to emergency rooms with serious injuries; a May 9, 2005 accident in which a school bus carrying 53 children struck two cars, killing two children and sending others to the hospital with head injuries and broken bones; and a March 2006 accident in Convoy, Ohio in which a school bus carrying 15 passengers– nine of them preschoolers– rolled over. In the last accident, the children were buckled in and none were seriously injured. 

Ross says the anecdotal evidence collected by the Coalition suggests that the number of school bus accident injuries may actually be closer to 35,000– more than double the estimate in the Pediatrics survey. He says approximately 400 school districts across the country have voluntarily installed seat belts on buses, and three states– New York, New Jersey, and Florida– require all new buses to be so equipped.

The organization that publishes Pediatrics– the American Academy of Pediatrics has supported the use of seat belts on school buses for the past decade. The Academy announced its formal position on the issue in the October 1996 issue of Pediatrics. 

"It is estimated that the use of seat belts on large, type I buses may reduce deaths and injuries by 20 percent, with an assumption that use rates are only 50 percent," the article said. With proper education and supervision, the Academy says, "Effectiveness estimates can be enhanced."

Dr. Benjamin Hoffman, director of the pediatric residency program at University of New Mexico Medical Center and executive director of the Academy's Committee on Injury and Poison Prevention, says he doesn't think it's realistic to retrofit all school buses with seat belts, but he does believe all new buses should be built with them.

"In a perfect world, having all new school buses roll off the line with seat belts would be great," Hoffman says.

That's not in the cards anytime soon in Charlottesville, where the issue isn't under consideration.

"There haven't been any complaints," says Charlottesville transit director Bill Watterson, who adds that minor incidents occur on school buses "on a monthly basis," but that there have been no accident-related injuries since he took the post two years ago.

And while Dennis Rooker periodically asks about seat belts, he too sees no immediate push for belt. But former Albemarle County School Board member Gary Grant, who serves as a substitute school bus driver in the county, would like to see the issue explored further.

"I'm not a safety expert," says Grant. "But I would hope as a layperson that we're not as a nation pushing against seat belts because of cost. Any one child's life is definitely worth the investment."

Are they safe enough?