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Front Page » November 18, 2003 » Local News » Seat belts divide school board
Published 4,341 days ago

Seat belts divide school board

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Staff reporter

At first glance it may appear that seatbelts on school buses is a good idea. But, according to some sources, it may be either a meaningless fixture on the yellow vehicles or even a device that could create danger to students.

However, at the Carbon School Board meeting on Nov. 12 the debate over the issue of whether to buy new buses with seatbelts came down to money. According to sources on the board a new bus could cost thousands of dollars more when equipped with restraints.

The issue arose because Regina McCourt, the district transportation supervisor, has requested the district fund buying three new buses at a total cost of $263,694.

"With this purchase we will have replaced all our gas powered buses with diesel units," said Scott Robertson, who was representing the transportation department at the meeting. "We try to turn over our buses when they reach 150,000 miles. We also try to maintain a fleet that has no buses more than 15 years old."

Robertson explained that buses are rotated so that the newest buses are used for trip buses (field trips, sporting activities, etc.) and that as they grow older they are put on routes. The oldest buses are used as back ups, then they are retired.

The issue of seat belts in buses came up during discussion by the board and the question was asked if the new purchase would include buses that have the devices.

"No they don't," said Robertson. "To install belts on our existing buses would cost about $28,000 per unit and I expect the cost for restraints on new buses would add about that much money to each unit."

Some members of the board felt that adding that much cost to a bus that cost $90,000 to begin with would be a little much, while others felt it might be worth some study.

"I think this is something we will have to definitely address when a law is passed concerning it," stated Robertson.

A few states have passed laws that require seat belts on school buses, but only one state, New Jersey, actually requires students to be buckled in.

It seems that with the acceptance of the American public for restraints in private vehicles (30 years ago only about 15 percent of drivers wore seatbelts regularly, today the percentage is near 80) that belts on buses would be a no brainer, but opposition to such a move has caused a national debate that comes up over and over again. And the reasons for not doing it actually has little to do with the money it would cost.

The yellow school bus is an American and Canadian phenomenon. In most other countries, particularly in Europe, the students travel on heavy motorcoaches that all have seatbelts.

Opponents of putting seatbelts in buses say that the school bus system is already very safe, largely because of the professional drivers and bus design. In fact the National Transportation Safety Board states that "belts on buses would provide little, if any, added protection in a crash" considering the way buses are designed today.

In fact many people think that having belts on buses would be more dangerous. A recent poll by the National Education Association of professional bus drivers shows that they are worried about a number of factors in connection with belts on buses.

•Students could use the heavy belt buckles as weapons, thereby injuring other riders.

•It would be nearly impossible to be sure students keep their belts properly fastened, possibly creating a hazard where kids could be injured by the belts themselves during an accident.

•Worry about evacuating buses in an emergency. In a fire, for instance, students could become disoriented and could be trapped.

The National Highway Transportation Administration has recently come out against seat belts on buses. The NHTSA says that the best way to give protection to passengers is by designing buses so they are compartmentalized so that buses provide protection to occupants by putting in closely-spaced seats that have energy absorbing materials in them.

However there are many groups that think belts are a good idea, based on the fact that they save many lives in private vehicles and that most kids know how to use them by the time they ride a school bus anyway.

Those groups point out that students who are belted in are not as likely to be behavior problems, that any kids knocked unconscious when belts aren't used are much more of a problem in exiting a bus than those that would be belted in and that the abdominal injuries caused by belts that are used improperly would be much less severe in an accident than those that take place because kids aren't tied down.

Groups that have come out in favor of belts include the National Parent-Teacher Association, the American Medical Association, Physicians for Automotive Safety, the American Academy of Pediatrics and other medical groups as well.

The laws could change too, with over 300 school districts now requiring all new buses to have belts. Bills are being proposed in more and more states every year on this issue.

In the end, the school board voted down buying the new buses 3-2, with Walt Borla and Boyd Bell voting for the purchase. The board asked Robertson to come back next month with information on seat belts and their cost in new buses before they made a total decision on whether to buy buses equipped with restraints.

In other business the board agreed to accept a new policy for students bringing inhalers to school for such diseases as asthma. Recent drug policies have precluded those inhalers along the lines of a "zero tolerance" policy, but many districts are amending their policies so those types of medications can be brought into the school. The issue has come to a head because of a legislator whose child had asthma, but couldn't bring the inhaler to school.

The board also approved the use of East Carbon High School as a place to have a Christmas concert celebration for the community. Last year the event took place at the Price Civic Center, but organizers want to have it in East Carbon this year.

However the issue did not go undebated, because there was some concern by board members about the fact that some religious groups were involved with the program.

"I just want to be sure we have a separation of church and state on this," said Bell.

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