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SEAT BELTS ON SCHOOL BUSES: A REVIEW OF ISSUES AND RESEARCH

Prepared for the North Carolina School Bus Safety Conference February 29, 1996, Raleigh, NC William L Hall, Staff Associate University of North Carolina Highway Safety Research Center (919) 962-2202

School bus transportation and safety is a very serious and sometimes controversial and emotional issue. Although school buses have been shown to be a very safe form of transportation, many parents and safety advocates question the absence of seat belts on school buses. As will be seen, the issue of installing seat belts on school buses is very controversial. For the most part, this controversy concerns the issue of seat belts on buses transporting school-age (K-12) children, but as will be mentioned, there is also concern for restraint use, or lack thereof, for pre-school children being transported in school buses. FEDERAL STANDARDS FOR SCHOOL BUSES Parents and others concerned with the lack of seat belts on school buses must remember that these vehicles are covered by standards separate, and much different, from those covering passenger cars. After a series of crash tests with different seating configurations and much study and debate, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) issued a seat of Federal standards targeting the safety of school buses that went into effect April 1, 1977. Among the three major federal standards that went into effect in 1977 was FMVSS 222, School Bus Passenger Seating and Crash Protection. Whereas passenger cars, light trucks and vans are required to have seat belts at all designated seating positions, FMVSS 222 does not require the installation of seat belts (other than for the driver) on new school buses with gross vehicle weight ratings (GVWRs) of greater than 10,000 pounds, the standard large school bus. Buses with GVWRs of 10,000 pounds or less are required to have seat belts for all passenger positions, but the larger buses rely on strong, well-padded, energy absorbing seats and higher seat backs to "compartmentalize" and protect passengers during a crash. Subsequent testing and case studies of school bus crashes have found compartmentalization to be effective in protecting school bus passengers in frontal crashes. Even so, the debate about the pro's and con's of installing belts on buses continues. THE CASE FOR SEAT BELTS ON SCHOOL BUSES Advocates of belts on buses offer the following arguments in support of requiring belts on buses: < Advocates of belts on buses interpret available crash-test and case-study data as indicating that belts provide improved crash protection and are beneficial especially in side-impacts and rollovers. As shown in Table 1, fifty-seven percent of the school bus occupant fatalities and 65% of the fatal crashes between 1977 and 1992 were frontal or rear-end collisions that

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compartmentalization is designed to protect against. Approximately one-third of the fatal crashes were non-frontal crash types that compartmentalization is not designed for1. Use of seat belts can provide a reduction in injuries to out-of-position students kept in their seats by seat belts. Use of seat belts can lead to improvements in passenger behavior and distractions to drivers. Use of seat belts in school buses will help to reinforce seat belt educational messages aimed at school-age children with the carry-over effect helping to remind children to use seat belts in cars.

THE CASE AGAINST SEAT BELTS ON SCHOOL BUSES Opponents of belts on buses offer the following arguments against requiring belts on buses: < The majority of school bus-related deaths and injuries to children do not result from crashes. As shown in Table 2, most school bus related deaths are to occupants of other vehicles (56%) and pedestrians (30%). The majority of children killed as pedestrians are those getting on or off the bus who are struck by either their own bus (69% of pedestrian deaths) or another vehicle (29% of pedestrian deaths)1. < For the less severe crashes, opponents of belts on buses often interpret the same available crashtest and case-study data as indicating that seat belts are harmful and thus argue that belts decrease crash protection since jackknifing of the students' bodies over the belts targets the head into the back of the seats in front of them. < School bus collisions that result in death or serious injuries are often catastrophic crashes involving large trucks or trains where belts would not help. < Evacuation of the bus in case of fire could be hampered by belted occupants. < Installation of seat belts does not guarantee use by students. The need for drivers to monitor belt use would increase, rather than decrease distractions. < There are no Federal standards covering the installation of seat belts on large school buses. < Sharing of buses by different schools means that belts would be used by very different sizes of children leading to difficulties of assuring a correct fit for all students. TRANSPORTATION RESEARCH BOARD COMPREHENSIVE 1989 STUDY To address the question of school bus safety in general, and the issue of seat belts in particular, the U.S. Congress asked the Department of Transportation to contract with the National Academy of Sciences to conduct a comprehensive study of the principal causes of fatalities and serious injuries to children riding in school buses, the use of seat belts in school buses, and other measures that may improve the safety of school buses. As a result of this directive, the Transportation Research Board of the National Research Council conducted such a study and issued the report Improving School Bus Safety in 1989. As a result of this in-depth study, based on analyses of crash-test data and school bus crash case studies, the panel convened to produce the report concluded that seat belts can indeed provide additional crash protection on "compartmentalized" school buses. They further concluded that: If all Type I school buses operated in the United States were equipped with seat belts, one life might be saved and several dozen serious injuries avoided each year. On the basis of this estimate, the committee concludes that the overall potential benefit of requiring seat belts on large school buses is insufficient to justify a federal standard mandating installation. The funds

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used to purchase and maintain seat belts in the nation's fleet of school buses--more than $40 million/yr-- might better be spent on other school bus safety programs and devices to save more lives and reduce more injuries2. It should be noted that the results and recommendations of this report have at times been either misinterpreted or misstated. This study did not conclude that seat belts do more harm than good and therefore should not be installed on buses. On the contrary, the committee concluded that belts would do more good than harm, but the cost-benefit analysis precluded making a recommendation for universal installation. As shown by national statistics, most school-bus-related fatalities and serious injuries are either occupants of other vehicles or occur at the bus stop as students are getting on or off. For this reason the committee recommended that funds that would be used to install seat belts on buses would be better used to address non-occupant fatalities and injuries. This assumes, of course, that funds are available and would be used to address these other issues. FLORIDA STUDY OF DISTRICTS WITH SEAT BELT EQUIPPED SCHOOL BUSES The most recent review of the experience of school districts operating buses equipped with belts was conducted by the Center for Transportation Research at the University of South Florida in 19943. The authors of the study surveyed 814 school districts across the United States that provide lap belts on 20-passenger or larger buses, including 763 districts in New York State where belts have been mandated since 1987. School districts in fourteen other states were also included. Responses were received from 154 (19%) districts operating 3,342 buses equipped with seat belts. The basic finding of the study was that the vast majority of students riding in belt equipped buses do not wear the belts while being transported in the buses. Some of the reasons cited and other results are as follows: < Of the districts responding, over 90 percent did not have a mandatory use policy, apparently stemming from problems related to enforcement of belt use and potential liability concerns. Due, at least in part, to the lack of a mandatory use policy, only six percent of the districts responding reported that students were buckling up at least half of the time and students in three-fourths of the districts were reported to be buckling up 10 percent of the time or less. Of the districts reporting crashes involving belt equipped buses, about 66 percent indicated no injuries but did not feel that the presence or use of belts contributed to the lack of injuries. The use of belts was felt to have avoided injuries by about 10 percent responding. Student vandalism of the belts was reported to be widespread according to 88 percent of the respondents with average maintenance costs associated with belt-related vandalism ranging from $300-$600 per bus.

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PRE-SCHOOL CHILDREN The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration conducted a survey that found that 90 percent of school districts transport preschool children to specialized programs and some districts allow preschool children to ride school buses with their teenage parents. About half of the children are carried on large school buses which are not equipped with seat belts. In their work with transportation of preschool children, the Automotive Safety for Children Program at the Riley Hospital for Children in Indianapolis has found that differences in physiology and behavior between preschoolers and

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school children necessitate restraint use. Furthermore, in many cases, preschool children riding on school buses are too small to use the seat belts on the bus, yet school bus seats do not provide adequate space for the installation of most current child restraint seats. SUMMARY The question of whether or not to install seat belts on school buses has evolved from the question of "would seat belts do more harm than good?" to a decision based on cost-benefit analyses and operating concerns. As indicated by the Transportation Research Board study cited above, seat belts can provide some additional protection in crashes. The questions that must be answered by school systems considering the installation of belts on buses include: < < Will the added benefits of seat belts on school buses outweigh the costs of installation and maintenance? If a school system has the funds to install and maintain the seat belts, would these funds produce greater benefits if spent on: Z Non-occupant fatalities and injuries while loading and unloading, Z Adding buses to the fleet to reduce overcrowding and standees, and Z Insure that all pre-1977 buses are removed from the fleet, including activity buses? If a school system decides to equip school buses with seat belts, will it be willing and able to implement an effective mandatory use policy for all students and will it enforce the policy through disciplinary action for students not using and/or vandalizing the seat belts?

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Regardless of whether or not school systems install seat belts on school buses for school-age children, it is imperative that all systems address the following concerns: < If school systems transport pre-school children on large school buses, are these children being transported in the safest way possible? < If school systems transport pre-school children in small school buses or vans that are equipped with seat belts, or if they contract for outside agencies to transport pre-school children, are they implementing policies and procedures to assure that the most appropriate restraints are being used and used correctly?

REFERENCES 1. U.S. Department of Transportation, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Traffic Safety Facts 1992: School Buses. Washington, DC. 2. National Research Council, Transportation Research Board (1989). Improving School Bus Safety: Special Report 222. Washington, DC. 3. Baltes, M.R., Polzin, S.E., and Viloria, F.C. (1994). To Belt or Not to Belt? Experiences of School Districts That Operate Large School Buses Equipped with Seat Belts. Final Report. Tampa, Fl: University of South Florida, Center for Urban Transportation Research.

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Table 1 .Occupant Fatalities in School Bus Related Crashes by Principal Impact Point on School Bus Vehicle, 1983-19921 Point of Single-Vehicle Multiple-Vehicle Total Impact Crashes Fatalities Crashes Fatalities Crashes Fatalities N % Side N % Top/Bottom N % Noncollision N % Unknown N % Total N % Front/Rear 18 43.9 5 12.2 4 9.8 12 29.3 2 4.9 41 100.0 30 48.4 6 9.7 9 14.5 15 24.2 2 3.2 62 100.0 33 67.3 14 28.6 2 4.1 0 0.0 0 0.0 49 100.0 77 74.0 19 18.3 8 7.7 0 0.0 0 0.0 104 100.0 51 56.7 19 21.1 6 6.7 12 13.3 2 2.2 90 100.0 107 64.5 25 15.1 17 10.2 15 9.0 2 1.2 166 100.0

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Table 2. Fatalities in School Bus Related Crashes, 1977-19921

Occupants of School Bus* Struck by School Bus* Pedestrians Struck by Other Vehicle Other Nonoccupant s Occupants of Other Vehicle

Year

Driver

Passenger

Total

Unknown**

Total

Total

1977 1978 1979 1980 1981 1982 1983 1984 1985 1986 1987 1988 1989 1990 1991 1992 Total

1 6 5 2 3 1 2 5 2 2 8 2 4 4 2 1 50

20 17 13 7 11 20 16 17 22 0 9 6 33 7 15 9 222

21 23 18 9 14 21 18 22 24 2 17 8 37 11 17 10 272

% of Total

44 48 50 35 35 33 36 28 28 31 32 19 25 32 21 21 518

19 35 25 11 9 15 12 11 13 16 11 17 7 7 5 8 221

Percent of Pedestrians

2 3 3 3 2 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 13

65 86 78 49 46 48 48 39 41 47 43 36 32 39 26 29 752

% of Total

8 3 6 4 3 2 6 5 4 6 5 6 1 1 5 2 67

% of Total

100 135 103 88 81 66 88 96 89 73 113 80 72 64 86 83 1,417

% of Total

194 247 205 150 144 137 160 162 158 128 178 130 142 115 134 124 2,508

Total%

Percent of Occupants

18%

Average

82% 14

11% 17

69% 32

29% 14

2% 1

30% 47

3% 4

56% 89

100% 157

3

* Includes school bus body-type and vehicle used as school bus. ** Before 1982, no data are available to show which vehicle struck the pedestrian in multiple vehicle crashes.

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