Mo. school bus seat belt debate returns

Monday, August 16, 2010
Rescue personnel work at the scene of an accident involving two school buses, a tractor-trailer and another passenger vehicle, Thursday, Aug. 5, 2010, on eastbound Interstate 44 near Gray Summit, Mo. The school buses were carrying high school band students to an amusement park. (AP Photo/St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Huy Mach)

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- Federal safety officials are looking at whether seat belts would have helped to reduce the injuries from this month's bus crash near St. Louis -- five years after Missouri officials recommended getting seat belts into the state's bus fleet.

A special state task force in 2005 advised encouraging school districts to consider replacing their fleets with buses that have factory-installed lap and shoulder harness seat belts. The panel was created after three school bus crashes within a week killed two motorists and injured dozens of schoolchildren.

Then-governor Matt Blunt went a step further than the recommendation, saying he would work to require lap-shoulder seat belts on newly purchased school buses. It never happened.

The fatal Aug. 5 accident on Interstate 44 has renewed interest in the issue.

The National Transportation Safety Board said its investigation will include reviewing whether seat belts would have helped. Investigators wrapped up their work at the scene and are looking at several things, including highway signage, the training of the bus drivers and maintenance and service records of the buses.

The accident happened after a semi cab slowed for road construction and was struck by a pickup. Two buses carrying high school band students from St. James to an amusement park then slammed into that wreck. The accident killed the 19-year-old driver of the pickup and a 15-year-old girl in the first bus. More than 50 students were hurt.

It remains unclear if a seat belt would have helped prevent the death of the teenage girl, who was sitting near where the second bus hit hers.

But some advocates say seat belts can make school buses safer.

Buses are designed with tall, padded seat backs to protect students who are knocked forward during an accident. A school transportation industry group likens it to how eggs are protected in a carton. The organization, the American School Bus Council, said school buses remain the safest way to transport students.

The National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services agrees buses are safest. Nonetheless, it advocates adding shoulder harness seat belts, reporting it would cost $8,000 to $10,000 more per bus to have the belts installed.

Another group, the National Coalition for School Bus Safety, said seat belts are needed and estimates a lower price tag for buying new buses with them.

"There's no debate anymore. Seat belts save lives," said Alan Ross, the group's president.

Missouri lawmakers considered a seat belt mandate in 2006 -- months after the school bus safety task force released its recommendation. That proposal would have required people convicted of speeding and other moving violations to pay $15 into a fund to cover the cost.

The measure was considered in the House Transportation Committee, but it did not pass. Similar bills have been filed since.

Budget troubles, meanwhile, have prompted state and local governments to look for ways to cut their spending, not add to it.

Plus, some have said it can be difficult to design shoulder-lap seat belts that can fit both kindergartners and high schoolers. It also can be difficult for drivers to ensure several dozen riders are wearing their seat belts properly.

The American School Bus Council says lap and shoulder belts that are properly worn can provide additional protection. But it says the belts can reduce the number of passengers buses can carry, and tests have indicated additional injuries are possible if the restraints are not worn correctly.

Missouri lawmakers are not alone in their mixed feelings toward requiring seat belts. The school bus task force chairman at the time called seat belts a "very explosive issue" that needed to be considered without emotion.

Just one-quarter of the 702 school bus drivers surveyed for the special committee's final report in 2005 said they saw a need for seat belts on large school buses.

Asked about the most important equipment that could be added to buses, drivers ranked two-way radios the highest. Seat belts were not included on the slate of options, yet several listed them anyway.

Seat belts on school buses became a hot topic in Missouri after accidents involving school buses in 2005. Onlookers after a 2005 crash in the Kansas City suburb of Liberty helped pull roughly two-dozen injured children from a bus carrying about 50 grade schoolers. The crash left some wondering whether the child passengers would have been better off if their bus had seat belts.

Five years later and on the opposite side of the state, federal safety inspectors now face a similar question.

EDITOR'S NOTE -- Chris Blank has covered state government and politics for The Associated Press since 2005.

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