Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

For School Buses, How Safe Is Safe Enough? ; Bus Travel Produces Few Student Deaths, Statistics Show. but a Fatal Accident This Week in Alabama Revives Seat-Belt Debate

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

For School Buses, How Safe Is Safe Enough? ; Bus Travel Produces Few Student Deaths, Statistics Show. but a Fatal Accident This Week in Alabama Revives Seat-Belt Debate

Article excerpt

The tragic school-bus accident in Alabama this week is bringing to the fore an ongoing and passionate debate about whether the nation's school buses should be required to have seat belts.

Four students died and about a dozen were sent to the intensive care unit after the Huntsville City Schools bus plunged off an overpass on its way to a vocational training center Monday. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) is investigating the accident, which local police say may have happened when a compact car driven by another student either got too close or cut the bus off.

Advocates of safety belts on the ubiquitous yellow buses say this accident is proof that the nation is failing to properly protect its children by not requiring buses to have seat belts (something required of the family car). Opponents say that the buses' current design - with high, padded seat backs and emergency exits - are safe enough, and that certain types of seat belts, like a simple lap belt, could even be harmful.

Nonetheless, even before the crash, the NTSB had put school-bus safety on its list of most-wanted safety improvements.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has chosen to take a neutral stand. "In a report to Congress about the value of belts on buses, the conclusion is that ... shoulder belts could have a marginal impact on safety," says Rae Tyson, an NHTSA spokesman. "So we've left that decision up to the state and local governments."

Currently, only a handful of states now require safety belts: New York, New Jersey, Florida, and California - and some of those states even leave the decision up to the local school districts.

Opponents say that requiring belts simply adds to the price of transporting students, without a corresponding increase in safety. There's not only the cost of installing the belts, but also the expense of buying extra buses. Currently, buses without belts can seat three students to a seat. With belts, that number drops down to two a seat. So, requiring seat belts would also require a third more buses. And because so few fatalities are associated with school-bus accidents, opponents say it's a poor use of resources. …

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