Educators in Washington should heed the opinion of the National Transportation Safety Board regarding the use of seat belts on school buses. Last week, board officials recommended that all new large school buses should be equipped with both lap and shoulder belts. This marks a change of opinion for the transportation board — and The Columbian Editorial Board, as well.
In the past, we have supported the opinions of experts that seat belts on large school buses would provide minimal improvements in safety. But when experts examine the evidence and reach new conclusions, it is our duty to also examine the evidence and give weight to the opinions of those with extensive knowledge of the issue. “I think that that’s the right stance,” said transportation board Chairman Robert Sumwalt. “I feel like we as an agency have tiptoed around that for a long time.”
The impetus for the board’s change was a report on two fatal school-bus crashes last November. It was given increased poignancy by a May 17 New Jersey crash in which a bus collided with a dump truck. One student and one adult were killed.
It is important to note that seat belts will not be a panacea for preventing and minimizing the toll of school-bus crashes. The driver in a fatal Tennessee wreck had faced numerous complaints about unsafe driving and is believed to have been talking on his phone at the time of the collision; and the driver in New Jersey reportedly had 14 license suspensions.
Ensuring safe school buses begins with diligence on the part of school officials and the appropriate vetting of drivers. Going beyond that, it is the duty of all schools to take every possible measure for guaranteeing the safe transportation of students.
That long has been a source of debate, with experts often arguing that large school buses do not require seat belts for maximum safety. While federal law dictates the use of belts on small buses, the belief has been that large buses distribute the impact of a crash differently. With students protected by closely spaced seats and energy-absorbing seat backs, an engineering concept known as compartmentalization distributes the impact.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, however, admits that “a great deal of ambiguity remains.” With an estimated 25 million American school children riding buses to and from school, ambiguity is not good enough; the overriding concern must be the protection of students.
For many states, school districts and taxpayers, that concern can be tempered by cost. According to separate studies by the highway safety administration and the University of Alabama, the inclusion of seat belts on new buses would add $8,000 to $15,000 to the price tag. According to the state Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction, the largest class of school bus typically costs between $100,000 and $110,000 apiece. And with a large bus typically being replaced after 13 years, it would take a generation for an entire fleet to be turned over.
Still, we can see the wisdom of incremental changes when those changes increase student safety. Concerns remain — including questions about whether students would use seat belts and use them properly, and whether they could extricate themselves in the event of a crash. But if people who earn a living studying transportation safety believe the benefits would outweigh the drawbacks, that makes for a powerful argument.
The office of the state superintendent should pay attention to that argument.