School bus seat belt use is issue in Janesville, state

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Frank Schultz
Tuesday, September 10, 2013

JANESVILLE—Three years after Janesville became the only school district in the state to have seat belts in school buses, the belts are not always doing the job that officials had foreseen.

The belts work fine, but students don't always wear them, a bus company official said.

“Our experience in the Janesville School District is, they do and they don't,” said Allen Fugate, operations manager for Van Galder Bus, which provides school bus service to the district.

Tim Cullen, who was a school board member at the time, championed the cause of school-bus seat belts, getting the school board to agree to pay for belts whenever Van Galder bought a new school bus.

Cullen, now a state senator, announced this week a bill that would make seat belts mandatory on all new Wisconsin school buses.

Fugate calls that idea “admirable,” but he suggests the issue is not as clear-cut as it might seem.

“Who wouldn't want their kids in seat belts? But you're leaving the kids to themselves to make sure they're properly belted,” Fugate said. “That's the issue; are the things going to be used? Is there any benefit if they're not buckled up?”

“The high school students absolutely refuse to wear them,” Fugate said.

Younger students don't always wear them, he said.

Students put their belts on until the bus starts but then get “antsy,” Fugate said.

“You can only stop them to a certain extent. How many times are you going to pull the bus over and holler at them?” Fugate asked.

The school district issued a statement in response to a question about enforcing seat belt use, saying the driver is usually the only adult on the bus, and Van Galder owns the equipment, so the driver is in charge of enforcement.

Cullen said some kids might not wear their belts, but it's a small percentage.

Cullen noted that seat belt use in cars keeps rising in Wisconsin, and this generation of schoolchildren has always buckled up in cars, so it's natural for them to do the same in buses.

Cullen noted that everyone must be belted in private cars, but children travel in buses at 55 mph without belts.

Cullen calls that “completely outrageous.”

Fugate pointed to the bus industry position, which the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration also touts, that children are protected in school buses by something called compartmentalization.

School buses are high above the traffic, so passengers absorb less of the crash force than they would in cars, the theory goes. In addition, the high, padded seat backs and tightly spaced seats protect students in accidents.

“It's like the kids are in an egg carton. They're compartmentalized in these padded seats,” Fugate said.

“There's no such thing when a crash occurs. The kid goes flying,” Cullen responded. “If that (compartmentalization) was so safe, why don't the car makers create those kinds of safe seats in cars?

The bottom line is that seat belts save lives, Cullen said.

“It only makes sense to me that we can prevent more injuries by requiring seat belts, especially three-point lap and shoulder safety belts that are required in cars,” Cullen said in a news release

Cullen's proposal would require seat belts only in newly manufactured school buses and would require that all passengers on school buses wear seat belts. School buses already on the road would not have to be retrofitted. The bill creates a grant program that would reimburse school districts for half the cost of adding belts to new buses.

The Janesville School Board has paid $141,100 to Van Galder Bus to cover the added costs of equipping buses with three-point belts since 2010. The company now has belts in 11 of its 27 large school buses, Fugate said.

The average cost of the belts comes out to $12,827 per bus.

Small buses, often used to transport students with disabilities, are a different issue. They have had lap belts for many years, as required by federal law.

Cullen noted that Greyhound has installed seat belts in recent years, and he cited an April accident in northeastern Illinois, when a school bus collided with a Jeep, causing the school bus to spin around and tip onto its side. The passengers were not wearing seat belts.

Twenty-five of the 35 passengers were taken to the hospital. Injuries included broken bones from falling from their seats, including an 11-year-old girl with a skull fracture, Cullen said.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration website recommends that states “take into consideration the increased capital costs, reduced seating capacities, and other unintended consequences associated with seat belts that could result in more children seeking alternative means of traveling to and from school or school-related events."

School buses are statistically safer than other forms of travel, the agency says, so more kids in cars means greater risks.

The agency cites a 2002 National Academy of Sciences study that found about 815 fatalities related to school transportation each year, 2 percent of those associated with official school transportation, compared with 22 percent from walking or bicycling to or from school, and 75 percent from passenger car transportation.

“Pedestrian fatalities account for the highest number of school bus-related fatalities,” the website continues. “There are about 17 such fatalities per year, two-thirds of which involve the school bus itself and the rest involving motorists illegally passing the stopped school bus.”

The agency concludes that “states and localities should focus their efforts toward improving school bus loading zones.”

The National PTA, American College of Preventive Medicine and American academies of pediatrics and orthopedics all call for seat belts in school buses.

The National Association for Pupil Transportation, which advocates for school bus companies, says the federal government should conduct research, including crash tests, to settle the argument.

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