Industry Vendor Debates Seatbelts

Jordan Puckett weighed in on the seat belt topic on April 11, 2017, in his article titled, “Should our buses have seat belts, both sides of the ongoing debate.”

His article oversimplifies the pros and cons of seatbelt use. He first states, “while this may at first seem like a no brainer ‘yes we should’ answer, many disagree.”

If it were a simple matter, there wouldn’t be a debate and no one would be disagreeing.

He cites the following “pros” to installing seatbelts:

• Educate students: installing seat belts gives our students training in consistent seatbelt use

• Prevent unsafe bus lawsuits: installing seatbelts could eliminate lawsuits filed for “unsafe” buses

• Improve student behavior: installing seatbelts would keep kids in their seats and bad behavior would disappear

• Eliminate student ejection in crashes: installing seat belts will keep students inside the bus during a collision

• Increase parental confidence in the yellow school bus: installing seat belts will give parents more confidence in transportation systems

• Keep students fixed in their locations: installing seat belts – even lap belts – will help keep students from sliding around the bus seat

Puckett makes assumptions about the safety improvements offered by seat belts. Using them to educate students, manage their behavior, and making their parents feel good are all good things if seat belts do not cause harm to students. The same is true about potential lawsuits: if the seat belts themselves cause harm, we are going to be sued anyway.

We have, as an industry, done much to prevent ejection. The way we construct the seating compartment (aka the chassis) has made it far less likely that there will be any openings even in a very serious crash.

His final point, that even a lap-belts-only system could improve the overall passenger experience by keeping students fixed in their seating location instead of sliding across the seats, is erroneous. We know that lap belts cause harm to young students. We know that internal damage to their less-protected abdomens and internal organs increases with the use of lap belts. We have proven in multiple studies that the only product we want to approve as an industry is a three-point harness, because studies have indicated that in some crashes, three-point harnesses could improve student safety. The problem is that until we install them in a large number of vehicles and use our students as crash test dummies, we cannot be certain our tests are accurate. I’m not a fan of using our students as crash test dummies.

Puckett made the opposing case too. He points out the reasons we may have to argue against installing seat belts. I refute each of his points directly following the bullet point:

• Seat belts are expensive. The cost of the bus and all of its safety enhancements are passed on to the consumer. No one within the industry, not private contractors or school districts, assumes the cost of the seat belts; it is, in fact, paid for by American taxpayers. Also, the cost of a student’s life is immeasurable. No one who has experienced a traumatic crash would use this point as an argument against seat belts.

• School buses are already very safe because they travel below or right at the speed limit and the seating compartment is above the impact point of most vehicles. Buses travel at high speeds, and even at low speeds some crashes are serious. Trusting that they all travel below or right at the speed limit is making a fairly ridiculous assumption.

The point about the seating compartment being high off the ground, above the level of impact in most crashes, is very valid, and part of a sound case against installing seat belts in school buses.

• Installed seat belts could cause difficulty extracting students if there were a fire. (Of course, he fails to mention water.) There are very few cases of school bus fire, and they become more rare as the vehicle standards improve nationally, and as bus inspectors get better at correcting flaws in the mechanical operation before it becomes an issue.

• Students may or may not actually use the seat belts. So much for making the point that we will be educating students on consistent, life-time use of seatbelts by installing them, at great expense to taxpayers.

Drivers would necessarily have to be exempted from any regulation requiring them to enforce the use of seat belts, just like school administration would have to treat misuse or non-use as a punishable infraction.

• Puckett wonders what would happen when more students tried to fit in a seat than there were seat belts. This is a more serious issue than just a point in an argument opposing seat belts. Each bus would have to have the number of seat belts as the bus is (nationally) regulated to carry. Some states allow students to stand – again, a more serious issue than this article addresses. If seat belts improve student safety, every student needs to have one.

I find it perplexing that this article was referenced by an industry publication. The online link redirects the reader to a website for school transportation-related products, so it seems to be more of an advertising ploy than a valid article about seat belts.

Seat belts? Well, that topic is definitely not disappearing from industry conversations any time soon.

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