Director says buses are designed for safety

Compartmentalization, high seat back design in buses provide safety in event of crash

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Colorado law says that people must wear their seat belts when riding in cars and trucks. So why aren't seatbelts mandatory in the vehicles that carry thousands of children back and forth to school everyday school buses?

Moffat County School District Director of Transportation James Baptist said studies have been conducted and shown that the system of compartmentalization in school buses and the way buses are made actually make them one of the safest vehicles on the road for its passengers.

Compartmentalization is keeping a child or passenger on a bus confined to a padded compartment in the event of a crash.

In general, the higher the seat back and the closer the spacing between the rows, the better the compartmentalization of passengers in a crash.

He said Tests have shown that a seat belt, or lap belt, is actually more dangerous for passengers in an accident.

The other type of belt, a safety belt, is a three-point belt system that straps across the waist and includes a shoulder harness.

Although the safety belt would offer better protection than a seat belt, they cannot be installed in buses because of the bus construction, Baptist said.

However, the absence of seat belts in school buses is not due to complacency at the local, state or federal level.

"I've never met anyone who works in school transportation who is not safety-oriented," he said. "If they felt the lap belt was safer they would have already done it."

Lap belts could cause more injury to a child in the case of a head-on collision because just their upper body would be thrown forward causing their face to strike the seat in front, Baptist said.

Due to compartmentalization, the seat in front of a child is built high enough to absorb the blow of a child's entire body when they are thrown forward in the case of a front-end collision.

"With small children they've found more damage can occur with a lap belt than with compartmentalization because of their bone structure," said Linda O'Conor, a bus driver trainer for the Moffat County School District.

The lap belt is located in a bad place to secure a child, she said.

"There are so many vital organs in that area like the liver, spleen, stomach and kidneys," she said.

The other alternative, a safety belt, is really not an alternative, Baptist said.

"There's no way buses can put a three-point system on bus seats the way they are designed," he said.

To install a belt with a shoulder harness, too many modifications would have to be made.

"Buses have to meet strict minimum standards," he said. "You can't pull a screw out and put it somewhere else. You can't just go in and alter things. To put safety belts in you would have to totally reinvent the inside of a school bus."

Baptist estimated that it would cost a school district millions of dollars to implement and install safety belts in school buses.

"It would require a total overhaul of the interior design of a bus," he said. "A school district can't do that. The federal government would have to come in and prototype it, test it and then maybe approve it," he said.

"You can't even put a tow hook on a bus without meeting standards," he said.

People need to realize a bus is not built like car, Baptist said.

"Buses cost so much because they are built to a higher standard," he said. "A car is not built like a bus is. You don't build a bus because you want to get 'X' miles of gas per gallon. They're built for safety."

Baptist compared the bus to a race car, because it's entire body is built as one big roll cage.

"It's set up like a race car with a roll cage to protect the people inside of the roll cage," he said.

From the front to the back of the bus, every piece of framing is connected together for safety purposes.

If the back of the bus is hit, the entire frame shifts instead of just one part.

"A bus basically destroys itself to protect the kids," he said. "The whole cage is hooked together."

Bruce Little, a senior consultant on the transportation staff with the Colorado Department of Education, said with comparmentalization, schools have chosen to use passive restraint instead of active restraint with lap belts.

He agreed that students are safer without a lap belt than with one, and three-point belt systems cannot be installed in buses at this time.

"The National Highway Safety Administration is now wrapping up several years of investigation," he said. "I know they've ruled out lap belts, but don't yet know what other final conclusions they have drawn. I know they were going to seriously consider a three-and four-point belt system."

If seat belts were ever to be implemented, the next challenge would be getting students to wear them, and not misuse them.

"There's no way one person can make sure 45 kids are buckled in," O'Conor said. "You'd have to be walking back and forth constantly."

Baptist also described the situation of a student using a three foot leather strap with a metal block on the end to strike a student.

Studies are still being conducted, but those at the Moffat County School District Transportation Department don't foresee buses with seat belts in the near future.

"I'm all for finding something to keep them secured in their seats, but not until it is proven to be safer than compartmentalization," O'Conor said. "When air bags first came out they were supposed to be the safest thing in the world, but problems were found with them."

Baptist said studies are continually conducted, and bus safety is an area filled with codes and requirements. Requirements he would be willing to explain to anyone, anytime.

"I would invite any parent who is concerned to come in," he said. "Come in, and let's talk about it."

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