Flying Children

by Stacey

What the hell is the deal with school buses? We spend the first five years of our kids’ lives breaking our backs buckling and strapping them down in the backseat of the car, only to send them off to sit in one of those giant yellow buses without even a rope to hang on to should things go awry. The poor things sit there waiting to go flying up the aisles should the bus stop short or worse, actually hit something.

Take for example, this story about a minor school bus accident in New Jersey – one bus hit the back of the other bus when the first stopped to pick up some kids. (Perhaps the driver of the second bus should brush up on what those blinking yellow lights mean, hello?) The incident sent 22 kids to the hospital with minor cuts and bruises. It took four hospitals to treat everyone, not to mention all the alcohol the parents consumed that night to shake off the nightmare of your kid being in a bus accident.

I haven’t been on a school bus in a long time so perhaps things have changed, but given the number of injuries here I’m guessing not that much. Isn’t this a gigantic liability? WHY AREN’T THERE SEAT BELTS ON SCHOOL BUSES????? Seriously. Anyone know?

After a day of brooding, I decide to try to get to the bottom of this myself. For starters, did you know there is something called “The Great Seat Belt Debate”? Neither did I. Apparently I’m not the first genius to ask this question.

The main explanation I found is that buses employ a strategy called compartmentalization, a term coined by UCLA researchers in the late 1960’s. It argues in favor of containing the child in a safe zone within the bus in which to bounce around.

This courtesy of School Transportation News: “Under the compartmentalization concept, seat backs in school buses are made higher, wider and thicker than before. All metal surfaces are covered with energy-absorbing padding. This structure must pass rigid test requirements for absorbing energy, such as would be required if a child’s body were thrown against the padded back. The equivalent of a seat back, called a barrier, is placed in front of the first seat at the front of the bus.” In addition, the seats must have a steel inner structure to absorb impact and the seats should be spaced no more than 24 inches apart, front to back.

Okay so at least there’s some thinking behind the lack of seat belts. But then I read this and got nervous all over again.

“It is important to note that the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), has found that compartmentalization is ‘incomplete,’ and ‘does not protect passengers during lateral impacts with vehicles of large mass, in rollovers and from ejection.”

It doesn’t seem like rocket science to come to the conclusion that if the goddamn bus rolls over “compartmentalization” isn’t going to do jack to protect your kid from getting hurt. Although one could argue that if the bus catches fire the little ones wouldn’t be able to get out. (A horrible thought, but someone had to think it.)

Ultimately, both the UCLA team and the NTSB agreed: “Lap belts would provide substantial additional protection if used in combination with high-back seats equipped with additional efficient padding on the rear panel of the backrest ahead.”

Both! It’s brilliant! But alas, opponents of seat belts in school buses argue that it would take too much work to strap in all those kids and the youngest ones shouldn’t be wearing lap belts anyway because their abdominal areas aren’t fully developed. Besides they can fit more kids on the bus if they aren’t wearing a seat belt, three to a seat instead of two, which means 65,000 fewer buses on the road. Add in the cost – up to $60 million a year to add seat belts to new buses and even more to retrofit the old ones, and you’ve got yourself an issue that’s going nowhere.

Some states have laws requiring seat belts on new school buses, including New Jersey as a matter of fact, but no federal law exists. Wouldn’t it be cool if you could send your kid off to school sitting on one of these or these, instead of this?


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Filed under children's health, education, safety

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