Bus seat belt debate about to resume in Springfield

As a fatal crash in Chattanooga renews interest in seat belts on school buses, a suburban lawmaker wants to make the restraints law in Illinois.

State Rep. Lou Lang plans to introduce legislation in the coming weeks requiring seat belts on school buses, a precaution that is not federally mandated and exists in only six states.

It sounds like common sense, but the bus industry opposes the move, arguing buses are already the most secure form of transport for kids while belts are costly and could impede evacuation in an emergency.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration agrees buses are extremely safe but wants to up the ante. "Seat belts save lives," agency Administrator Mark Rosekind said. "Every child on every school bus should have a three-point seat belt."

Bus belt law proposals failed before, but "I think it's time to give it another shot," said Lang, a Skokie Democrat. Six pupils died and at least 20 were injured Nov. 21 in Chattanooga, Tennessee, when the school bus driver sped into a tree.

Lang has the backing of Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White on a bill requiring three-point seat belts on new, large buses. Small buses weighing less than 10,000 pounds already must have belts.

"The overriding concern should be children's safety," said David Druker, a spokesman for White.

Less than 1 percent of U.S. crashes involve school buses, or about 1,191 over 10 years, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration affirms. Just 8 percent of those killed in the crashes were bus occupants.

The high-backed, padded seats provide a protective, energy-absorbing egg carton for passengers referred to as "compartmentalization."

"School bus crash data show that compartmentalization has been effective at protecting school bus passengers," Naperville Community Unit District 203 spokeswoman Michelle Fregoso said. Drivers conduct daily fleet inspections to see if repairs are needed, in addition to twice-yearly state bus inspections, she said.

Like District 203, Elgin Area School District U-46 runs its own bus fleet.

"Historically, the construction of the school bus as it relates to compartmentalization has proved to be safer than lap belts," U-46 spokeswoman Mary Fergus said.

"The industry continues to look at the possibility of three-point seat belts, lap and shoulder belts much like those used in automobiles."

Fergus noted that belts would reduce bus capacity.

The American Academy of Pediatrics and National Transportation Safety Board both recommend belts for schoolchildren, explaining the devices restrain passengers in the event of a side-impact collision or if the bus flips over. As proof, the National Transportation Safety Board has pointed to a 2014 case in Anaheim, California, in which a school bus careened down an embankment and hit a light post and trees after the driver lost consciousness. There were no fatalities, and serious injuries were reduced because of seat belts.

Michael Reinders, president of the Illinois Association for Pupil Transportation, isn't convinced. The school bus driver and director of transportation for Winnebago Community Unit District 323 warns that seat belts could slow down students' exit in the case of fire.

"What if you end up with more deaths because students can't get out of the bus fast enough?" Reinders said.

Lang considers that a red herring, countering that no one would advocate removing seat belts from cars because they might delay evacuations. Instead, it's the cost that is driving the pushback, the legislator said.

Estimates for seat belts in large buses range from about $5,000 to $10,000.

Compartmentalization has worked well, said Deborah Hersman, president of the Itasca-based National Safety Council. But now, "we can do better. A three-point seat belt with compartmentalization provides optimal protection," said Hersman, former National Transportation Safety Board chairwoman.

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<h3 class="leadin">Your voice

School bus driver Mike Nilson, who ferries Fenton District 100 teens around, questions how enforceable seat belts would be.

"The large buses have a passenger capacity of 71," Nilson wrote. "So, if we have a full load, how do we make sure that all the students on the bus are wearing their seat belts? In the morning, we are driving a route picking up students at designated stops. There is no way we can see if the students are buckling up."

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The wheels on the bus

Using buses to shepherd kids back and forth to school keeps about 17.3 million cars off the roads each morning, the U.S. Department of Transportation estimates. That means 2.3 billion gallons of fuel saved, or $6 billion, or 44.6 billion less pollutants in the air

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