Seat belts in all school buses? Experts debate if it should be state law

  • Police credit seat belts with saving nine students and two adults from serious injuries Friday after their school bus rolled on its side and slid into a cornfield near Sugar Grove.

    Police credit seat belts with saving nine students and two adults from serious injuries Friday after their school bus rolled on its side and slid into a cornfield near Sugar Grove. Courtesy of ABC 7 Chicago

  • Police credit seat belts with saving nine special education students and two adults from serious injuries Friday after their school bus rolled on its side and slid into a cornfield near Sugar Grove.

    Police credit seat belts with saving nine special education students and two adults from serious injuries Friday after their school bus rolled on its side and slid into a cornfield near Sugar Grove. Courtesy of ABC 7 Chicago

  • School bus fatalities

    Graphic: School bus fatalities (click image to open)

 
 
Updated 1/31/2012 5:09 AM

It was just a "minor" school bus crash.

But the lack of a safety belt changed the life of one young girl, pediatrician Phyllis Agran recalled.

 

The girl slammed into the back of a seat and lost her front permanent teeth.

"It was categorized as a minor incident in terms of being a significant disability. But for this kid it's major -- she can't eat an apple without breaking her (false) teeth," Agran said Monday.

Seat belts prevented a school bus rollover Friday near Sugar Grove from turning into a catastrophe, police said. The nine special education students and two adults aboard survived with minimal injuries, and some continued on to their school, Krejci Academy in Naperville, after treatment.

The crash is reviving a familiar debate over whether school buses should be equipped with seat belts.

Illinois has no law regarding seat belt use on school buses. Last fall, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration required all newly manufactured small school buses to be sold with lap and shoulder seat belts. And in October 2009, the NHTSA mandated that manufacturers of new large school buses fit them with higher, padded seat backs.

The Elk Grove Village-based American Academy of Pediatrics and safety advocacy group KidsAndCars.org are among those who think the current standards are weak and don't protect children.

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"The data indicates lives will be saved (by using seat belts)," said Agran, of Orange County, Calif., an American Academy of Pediatrics member and expert on school transportation.

The recent crash involving the Krejci students "shows the benefit of wearing belts in that no one was ejected and apparently no one was seriously hurt. Restraint use prevents ejection and ejection results in the most serious types of injuries," she said.

But the NHTSA says school buses are among "the safest forms of transportation in the United States." Buses distribute crash forces differently than cars and high-backed seats provide a protective, energy-absorbing "envelope," referred to as "compartmentalization" in the industry, the agency says.

"Compartmentalization provides a better impact in case of an incident," said Tim Stokes, company spokesman for First Student Inc., a national school bus service that contracts locally.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Although many suburban high school districts contacted by the Daily Herald offer seat belts in smaller buses for special education students, the same protection is not provided in the big buses.

"Compartmentalization works well for this school district," Wheaton-Warrenville School District 200 Assistant Superintendent of Business Operations Bill Farley said.

"We run about 300 routes a day, we transport between 8,000 and 9,000 students and we have a good safety record, which is a credit to the drivers and community. Studies have gone both ways as to whether seat belts would be effective," he said.

Naperville Unit School District 203 Director of Transportation Elizabeth Myers concurred.

"We've always been told compartmentalization works. The (bus) seat backs are high so if a driver has to slam on the brakes, a child would go into the high seat back."

The American Academy of Pediatrics' Agran couldn't disagree more.

"The concept of compartmentalization developed in the 1960s. It's a dinosaur," she said.

"There have been injuries against the back of the seat and there have been ejections and children fly out of their seats when they're not restrained. We have much better technology that can save lives," she said.

At Stevenson High School in Lincolnshire, "the feeling here is the school and community haven't reached a definite answer whether it should be required, especially at the high school level," public information coordinator Jim Conrey said.

"Seat belts are seen as a supplemental thing to help ensure safety," he said.

For Palatine-Schaumburg High School District 211 administrators, "it is obviously something we look at and take quite seriously," Director of Community Relations Tom Petersen said. While some studies have indicated belts are not beneficial, "we continue to monitor things and follow the law," he said.

In the wake of Friday's crash, Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White will ask a traffic safety committee he leads to review the seat belt question.

It's an issue that's come up previously in the General Assembly but failed to gain steam.

The reason is "money, money, money and nothing but money," said Jannette Fennell, president of KidsAndCars, a national safety watchdog.

State Rep. Louis Lang, a Skokie Democrat, concurs that the cost of seat belts is a factor, as is resistance to mandates on school districts by some lawmakers.

"I'm not a big supporter of mandates, but this is a public safety mandate," he said. "It's about the safety of children. There's all kinds of opportunities to become a human missile."

It sends the wrong message when we require children to buckle up in cars but not in school buses, Lang said.

State Sen. John Millner, a Carol Stream Republican and former Elmhurst police chief, said there's no hard data proving seat belts will be an effective safety measure and incidents of injuries are rare.

And enacting seat belt laws could create problems for drivers when children refuse to comply or even use the buckles in fights, Millner said. "How can the driver control that?" he asked.

The NHTSA reports there are 139 school transportation-related fatalities a year, and 8 percent of those are school bus occupants. Even if those numbers are low, "if it's your kid, it's a pretty high number," Lang said.

Kane County sheriff's Lt. Patrick Gengler, who was on the scene of Friday's rollover, said the investigation is still ongoing.

Officials with Krejci Academy and the bus company, Illinois Central School Bus, did not return calls Monday.

Gengler, a veteran investigator, said he feared the worst when he got the call.

"When I got there and found they were all belted in ... it was a great relief," Gengler said. "Wearing seat belts in vehicles save lives."

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