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Feds shift gears on school bus safety 'best practices'

The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration is in the news again, this time because of a surprising about-face regarding seat belts. The switch is not the result of multiple recalls or any alarming statistical findings. The data we discussed in our Nov. 25 post certainly showed that seat belts save lives: Not wearing a seat belt is at the top of the list (by a sizeable margin) of the Fatal Four causes of death in traffic accidents.

This time, the agency is talking about seat belts in school buses. For years, the NHTSA has stood firm in its opinion that seat belts are not necessary on school buses. Not anymore. Early in December, the NHTSA announced that it has adopted a new best practice: All school buses will have three-point safety belts for their young passengers.

Not everyone agrees. Only six states require seat belts on buses -- Illinois is not among them -- and safety advocates along with budget-conscious school districts are actively opposing the move.

School buses are among the safest vehicles on the road; children are safer by far riding the bus than they would be in a car or truck. The reason? First, the buses are heavier and higher than most of the vehicles they share the road with. Second, buses are designed according to a safety concept known as compartmentalization.

Adults who have had to ride in school buses will remember the scant leg room. The design is meant to save children's lives, though, not adults' knees or taxpayers' money: The seat backs are high to keep children from being thrown out of their seats, and they are reinforced to absorb the impact to the occupant when there is a crash.

The NHTSA agrees that school buses are very safe. Seat belts would make them even safer. Especially, it seems, in rollovers or side crashes, according to recent research.

Students' safety is the first priority of everyone participating in the debate. Safety, however, comes at a cost. As difficult as it is to talk about, the problem is that the investment may be out of proportion to the number of lives saved. Retrofitting buses with seat belts could cost more than $5,000 per bus. Multiply that by hundreds of buses, and you come up with a budget line item that is unmanageable for most states or school districts.

The likely response -- "If even one life were saved, one child's life, wouldn't that justify the investment?" -- may be hard to overcome, though.

Source: IndeOnline.com, "NHTSA recommendation for school bus seat belts raises concerns," Amy L. Knapp, Dec. 11, 2015

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