Revisit seat belts on school buses

  • Seat belts are credited with saving nine special education students and two adults from serious injury after this accident near Sugar Grove on Friday. Should they be required in larger buses, too?

    Seat belts are credited with saving nine special education students and two adults from serious injury after this accident near Sugar Grove on Friday. Should they be required in larger buses, too? Photo Courtesy ABC7 Chicago

 
The Daily Herald Editorial Board
Posted1/31/2012 5:00 AM

It's an issue that has been debated for decades. But every now and then something happens that gives it a higher profile. After an accident Friday in Sugar Grove, that's where we are today.

Thankfully, the debate over whether seat belts should be required on school buses is not spurred by tragedy. This time, at least, it's the avoidance of a tragedy and the opinions of the police on the scene that has opened the debate anew.

 

"Having those kids belted in was a big, big deal this morning," Kane County sheriff's spokesman Lt. Patrick Gengler said Friday. "We have a school bus leave the road on its side and (there are) no serious injuries. This could have been a much more serious tragedy if they weren't strapped in."

The small bus was transporting nine special education students and two adults to a Naperville school. They all were treated and released from area hospitals.

As staff writer Justin Kmitch reported, federal rules set into effect in October 2011 require lap and shoulder seat belts be installed in all new smaller school buses. There is no seat-belt requirement for larger school buses, however.

Should there be? That's a tricky question and as of now no easy answer.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has ruled against requiring seat belts on larger buses. It cited safety studies that don't support such a mandate; the cost of equipping all buses with seat belts, saying it would exceed the benefit; and, finally, deferral to state jurisdictions as having the best chances of analyzing the data and making an appropriate decision.

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The issue needs a heavy dose of analysis at either the state or local level -- or both. Nothing is more important than the safety of our children -- and parents and taxpayers should be part of the equation when determining the cost benefit of such a rule.

As to the studies, the NHTSA relies on those that say the structure of bus seats are most important in determining security during a collision. In October 2009, it mandated that large school buses be fitted with higher seat backs.

But as transportation writer Marni Pyke reports in today's Daily Herald, the American Academy of Pediatrics in Elk Grove Village and the safety advocacy group KidsAndCars.org both are urging for more stringent standards.

"The data indicates lives will be saved (by using seat belts)," said Phyllis Agran of the pediatrics academy and a school transportation expert. "Restraint use prevents ejection, and ejection results in the most serious types of injuries."

Certainly that is true in most forms of vehicle transportation and usage is now the norm. This year, Illinois required backseat passengers in vehicles to wear seat belts. And we must wear them on airplanes too. While on the surface it seems to make sense to also require them on school buses, we are stopping short of calling for an outright mandate. Local districts should open the debate first, and we urge state legislators to do the same in Springfield. Then an informed decision can be made.

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