Group encourages seat belt use in buses

Friday, August 12, 2005

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- A group assigned to study school bus safety recommended Thursday that school districts consider putting seat belts in buses, but stopped short of suggesting that belts should be mandatory.

The task force was established by Gov. Matt Blunt after three school bus crashes within a week this spring killed two motorists and injured dozens of schoolchildren.

The group looked at a variety of safety issues, including training of bus drivers, students and motorists; funding; security issues; and state oversight of student transportation. But seat belts were the most contentious issue.

Public Safety director Mark James, who led the task force, said some members wanted to require lap-shoulder seat belts, while others thought encouraging their use was going too far. He said the data and national studies the group reviewed indicate lap-shoulder belts can improve safety if used correctly.

The group agreed that lap belts alone would do more harm than good, and that retrofitting existing buses not equipped for belts is not wise.

James said requiring belts without also providing money would serve no purpose, and state budgets have been tight lately.

"To mandate implementation of this and not provide funding would absolutely solve nothing," he said.

Rep. Tim Flook, R-Liberty, a proponent of requiring seat belts, said the task force took a step forward. A Liberty school bus crash in May killed two motorists and injured the bus driver and 23 children.

"This group said we think it will improve safety. That's positive," said Flook, a task force member. "I feel like we could go even further."

Flook also said he recognizes there are obstacles to overcome, including finding the money to pay for seat belts and ensuring that children of all sizes can be accommodated.

In addition, the group said legislation is needed to protect school districts that start using seat belts from liability issues -- for example, to ensure drivers aren't punished if a student doesn't wear the belt properly.

The group said its research indicated many more students are harmed getting on or off of buses than within them, and that riding on buses is still the safest way to transport children to school. Other recommendations include improved training for bus drivers and considering using adult monitors to supervise children entering or leaving the bus.

The panel also said a state director of transportation under the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education should be reinstated to oversee various aspects of student transportation.

James said he expects to present the group's ideas to Blunt in the next few days, and a formal written report should be complete within a couple of weeks.

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