Buses and buckles

Saturday, February 25, 2006

Each day, Carol Woods watches the 65 school buses she oversees line up on their way to covering 3,804 miles of roads in Cape Girardeau and Bollinger counties.

During those 3,804 miles, the safety of some 3,000 children rests on her shoulders. The potential hazards -- bad weather, inattentive motorists -- are never far from the thoughts of Woods and her bus drivers.

But even so, she's convinced school buses are one of the safest ways for students to travel.

The issue has come to the forefront in the past year, following Gov. Matt Blunt's request for a task force to study school bus safety and the need for seat belts on buses. Now, a bill in the Missouri Legislature calls for exactly that -- adding lap-shoulder belts to all new bus purchases beginning in January 2007.

Woods and other transportation directors throughout the state say they're not sure requiring the seat belts would improve student safety. In fact, Wood believes there is a strong chance the seat belts would put students in more danger.

"School buses are built to transport schoolchildren," Woods said. "They're designed with compartmentalization, like an egg-carton effect. The seats are meant to flex when you hit them."

Woods is concerned that belting children in would take away that flexibility, especially if a larger child who wasn't buckled in hit the seat of small child who was buckled.

House Bill 1674 requires that all new buses purchased have seat belts, but it releases school districts from the responsibility of ensuring students actually use the seat belts.

"I fear this will cause more children to be hurt than it will do good," said Woods. "To me, this bill is saying, 'If you want to use it fine. If not, fine.'"

School districts are already required to use seat belts when transporting 3- and 4-year-olds, which Woods said she supports. However, she maintains that there is no research to show that a seat belt would benefit the general school bus population.

According to the School Transportation News' National Loading and Unloading Zone Safety survey for 2004-2005, there were only two school bus-related fatalities in Missouri in 2004, the latest data available. Both occurred outside of the bus -- where seat belts would not have helped, said Woods.

Blunt's task force in 2005 was spurred by a rash of other bus-related accidents, including a May 9 incident in Liberty, Mo., that killed two motorists and injured 23 children. Later that month, 20 students from Belleville, Ill., received minor injuries when their bus was struck by a tractor-trailer in St. Louis.

One other major concern among school districts is the added cost of purchasing buses with seat belts, which would have a smaller capacity. Woods who serves on the state board of directors for the Missouri Association of Pupil Transportation, said the organization has estimated that additional cost at about $60 million statewide. In Jackson alone, running a full route with seat belt-equipped buses would require the purchase of 25 more vehicles than are currently used to accommodate the current student population.

To offset that additional cost, Woods said some school districts in Missouri are considering implemented a "three-mile rule" -- no longer offering bus service to students who live within three miles of the school they attend.

In Cape Girardeau, superintendent Dr. David Scala said he is also concerned about the cost. Cape Girardeau School District's bus services are contracted through First Student Inc. Phone calls to the local and regional offices were not returned by deadline.

"We're always looking at ways to be safe on buses, but we're wondering about monitoring the use of the seat belts," Scala said. "Any apparatus put on for safety would have to be monitored to make sure students are using them correctly."

In Scott City, superintendent Diann Bradshaw Ulmer said her school district is concerned with safety and has recently considered having teachers' assistants ride buses.

"But whether or not this seat-belt proposal solves problems I'm not sure," she said. "It really is difficult when you have 50 kids on a bus to make sure they're wearing the belts."

The bill does offer some funding from the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education to offset the cost of purchasing the new buses to school districts with "insufficient funds."

The bill is sponsored by Rep. Tim Flook, R-Liberty, and is backed at least in part by Blunt. Spokeswoman Jessica Robinson said the governor supports the "concept" of the bill, although he has not reviewed its specifics.

The bill is not yet scheduled for a hearing.

cmiller@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 128

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