By William Bill Hurst

In Indianapolis on March 12, 2012 a bus driver and a 5 year old girl were killed and at least 10  more students injured in a school bus crash in Indianapolis.  There were 50 students on board a bus carrying Lighthouse Charter School students that crashed into a bridge abutment on the way to school.  Two young boys are still in critical condition.  http://www.theindychannel/news/30658347/ detail.html In Chesterton, NJ, on March 13, 2012, drivers involved in a fatal school bus crash received citations.  This crash happened on the morning of February 16th at the intersection.  A school bus was struck by a dump truck.  The crash killed an 11 year old and injured 17 others.  http://www.abclocal.gov.com/wppn=news/local&id=8579506 Every school day over 22,000,000 ride in the yellow buses back and forth to school, as well as to various activities associated with their education.  Despite these statistics data regarding accidents and injuries related to students’ transportation are poorly maintained, inaccurate and are often misleading.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (see NHTSA 2002 report to Congress) states that on average during the past 11 years school buses have been involved in over 26,000 crashes resulting in less than 1,000 incapacitating injuries and slightly more than 7,000 non-incapacitating injuries.  However, close examination makes it appear that there is something wrong with these statistics as the 1992 injuries and deaths included more than half of the incapacitating injuries.  These statistics have been subject to criticism.   These statistics show that 42% of the overall fatalities are from a side impact or non-collision such as a rollover accident. It is for this 42% of fatal accidents that seat belts have the greatest potential for saving a life.  Since 1977 NHTSA has relied on “high-backed” padded seats to provide passenger restraint during school bus crashes.  However, a 1999 special investigation regarding bus crash worthiness concluded that the current method of restraining school bus passengers is incomplete and it does not protect passengers during lateral impacts with a vehicle of large mass and in rollovers because in such accidents the passengers do not always remain completely within the seating compartment.  www.ncsbs.org/testimonials/fatalities_and_injuries.htm.

So as it has been known for many years that seat belts would be of value in preventing death and incapacitating injuries, the question arises, “why haven’t seat belt laws been instituted regarding school bus transportation?”  The answer lies in the statistics that tell us that school buses have a rate of .02 deaths per 100,000,000 miles traveled; a rate of deaths in automobiles in eight times higher.  So over a span of 11 years from 1994 to 2004 a total of 71 passengers on school buses died in crashes, and in 2004 alone traffic accidents killed 31,693 people in cars and light trucks.  So, school bus travel is much safer without seat belts than traveling in an automobile.

We know that by law “kids” on bikes have to ride helmets and “kids” in cars must be secured, so it’s often a surprise to learn that Federal Law does not require seat belts on most school buses.  In a few States buses are equipped with seat belts.  The states of New York, New Jersey and Florida have their own laws requiring lap belts on all school buses but not belts that go over the shoulder and lap or a 3-point safety restraint.  All small buses in the U.S. are required to have lap belts.  Essentially these bus types are usually built on van frames; however, the conventional big yellow school bus is designed to meet a different federal safety standard.  Unfortunately the NHTSA contends that compartmentalization alone (above described) is adequate crash protection and that to mandate seat belts in addition would be messing with success.  Seat belts will limit the number of kids who can squeeze into a bus seat and that might mean some schools would have to buy more buses or else tell kids to find another way to school.  Opposing this advice the American Academy of Pediatrics wants to see a 3-point safety belt in every school bus and this is a position that’s held by the Academy since 1996.  The Academy cites too little information is known about injuries in school bus accidents to truly conclude that buses are safe enough without seat belts.  Certainly under no circumstances if a bus rolls over does compartmentalization protect the passengers.  Often cited is an October, 2005 accident which happened in Plainfield, NH.  A bus taking kids home from school ran off the road and flipped over on its side.  None of the 28 children on board were injured and all but one were wearing seat belts.  www.webmed.com/parenting/features/child-safety-school-bus-still-best- The National Highway Transporation Safety Act on July 11, 2007 held a public meeting to discuss the effectiveness of seatbelts on school buses.  An NHTSA administrator at that time made a public commitment to investigate options for improving the safety of bus transportation. On November 21, 2007 as a result of this meeting the NHTSA released a notice of a  proposed rule making the FMVSS 222 regulation for bus seat design and performance to incorporate a performance specification for lap/shoulder belts.

According to the information reviewed by the NHTS in making this decision included data that in their 2002 report every day there are over 144 school bus accidents with approximately 26,000 a year and more than 9,500 children are injured in school bus accidents every year.  The American Academy of Pediatrics estimates that 51,100 school bus related injuries are treated in emergency departments between the years of 2001 to 2003 which averages about 17,000 children injured in school bus accidents every year.  According to the 2005 data reviewed by NHTSA in their rule making an average of 21 school age children die in school transportation related traffic deaths every year.  This number applies only to daily school routes and does not account for extracurricular activities that often take place outside the normal school hours.  The NHTSA research on lap/shoulder belts indicates that lap/shoulder belts in every vehicle in which they  have ever been introduced reduce injuries and fatalities by 45%. Increasingly school buses are traveling longer distances and children use school transportation to travel to sporting events and other activities outside their communities.  www.safeguard4kids.com/statistics.htm.  Most manufacturers estimate that seat belts would add about $2,000 to the cost of a new bus.  Retrofitting an existing bus would cost more, perhaps around $3,400.  Some parents believe it’s not the school bus but the driver that they should worry about.  There’s no federal law requiring background checks for drivers but a number of states and individual school districts do have that requirement.  Some states also require drivers to undergo extensive training on various aspects of their job, have frequent driving record checks and pass periodic drug testing and medical exams.  www.safetyissues.com/cite/school/school_bus_accidents_threaten_kis_safety.html

In Indiana in particular the accident that happened recently leaving a student and a bus driver dead has raised concerns in Indiana about school bus safety.  Another bus in Quincy, Washington that had to do with a rollover caused critical injuries.  In both of these accidents neither bus was equipped with a passenger seat belt, which the National Highway Safety Traffic Administration does not require in the larger school buses.  An NHSTA spokesman indeed claims that buses are “even safer than their parents’ cars” and therefore will not make any effort to currently enact any laws requiring seat belts on a federal level.  It’s true that the government did strengthen its compartmentalization rule in 2009 to require higher seat backs in school buses for better protection.  However, as to whether large buses are equipped with seat belts that decision has been left up to the states and individual school districts.  www.abcnews.go.com/blogs/headlines/2012/03/ school-bus-crashes-raise-the-issue-of-seat-belts-and-bus-safety/ In Indianapolis, Indiana, a local company manufacturers seats for school buses and have conducted research on bus safety.  This research concludes that restraints do work and all the seats that they’re currently building (IMMI) now come with seat belts and shoulder restraints.  The company notes that children are now used to climbing into the vehicle and putting on lap and shoulder belts, and sometimes they wonder where they are!  There are now six states that mandate seat belts on school buses but there is no effort anywhere to retrofit old school buses.  The cost apparently is the major factor.

The Governor apparently believes that it’s time for a new law requiring seat belts and now State lawmakers have taken up the discussion.  The need for school corporations to have the school bus safety reviewed by bus experts is needed immediately and should not wait.  www.wishtv.com/dpp/news/indiana/ will-school- bus-seat-belts-become-law  It’s clear that advocates of school bus seat belt laws are gaining steam in Indiana.  State legislatures who support such a requirement are becoming persistent in their efforts.  Unfortunately, the State Education Department’s Director of School Transportation a day after the deadly school bus crash in Indianapolis stated that while they would love to require safety belts in every school bus the system simply can’t afford it.  In defense of the current safety standards the Director stated that this past Monday’s accident was the first fatality of a school age child riding or getting on or off a school bus since 2009.  He indicated that it would cost approximately $160,000,000 to equip all of Indiana’s 16,000 school buses with effective restraints.  At this time the State nor individual districts could shoulder that cost.  Our current state laws require the Indiana State Police to inspect all school buses at least once a year.  Current legislators have stated that they can’t remember any legislative push prior to now to require the restraints on the buses in recent years.  However, now in view of this accident it may come up, particularly if the media coverage continues or another accident occurs.  He points out that only six states currently mandate that larger school buses are to be equipped with seat belts.  The director of the State’s Education Department does note that some districts are installing safety belts and covering the cost themselves.  But he fears that if this was a requirement of all public schools many would just stop providing the bus service all together rather than shoulder the cost.  www.ibj.com/indiana-can-t-afford-to-add-seat-belts-to-buses/PARAMS/article/33202

 

The Law office of William “Bill” Hurst has been in business since 1981 in the State of Indiana, representing Hoosiers across the State for personal injuries sustained in various kinds of accidents or events.  If you would like to contact our office to discuss a bus accident injuring you or your child you may contact this office for a free consultation at 800-636-0808.  You can also browse our personal injury website for more information at www.billhurst.com There is no fee unless there is a recovery and you receive money.

 

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