Mary Sanchez

Debate on bus safety should focus on injuries, not fatalities

Updated: 2013-08-22T13:13:01Z

By MARY SANCHEZ

The Kansas City Star

The relief of Pembroke Hill parents leads to the next obvious question:

Would fewer children be injured in such crashes if they wore seat belts?

The focus can begin on injuries because thankfully no children died Wednesday afternoon in the crash of a school bus carrying Pembroke Hill children to a camp in Kansas. That’s helpful in leaping over the mantra long used to squelch reasonable questions about school bus safety.

Anyone who delves into the issue will quickly hear the industry’s reply: School buses are among the safest form of transportation for children when compared with passenger cars or small trucks, resulting in only about six deaths a year. It’s an impressive safety record considering that every year about 23.5 million children ride buses.

A 2002 study for Congress found an average of 26,306 school bus crashes a year.

Where bus safety gets cloudier is when injury rates are considered. The limited information quickly becomes murkier when trying to determine the severity of every child’s injury and then to assess whether a seat belt could have helped, or would have trapped the child in a more dangerous situation.

One argument against seat belts is that the high backs of bus seats are padding enough, a way to keep children from being thrown during a crash.

Missouri has been here before.

In 2005, a special task force was formed after a series of bus crashes. Eventually it was recommended that school districts consider lap and shoulder seat belts as they replaced vehicles. The then governor, Matt Blunt, wanted to require it. It never happened.

The cost is one reason often given. Another problem is that more seat belts might be needed when a bus carries smaller children, three to a seat. Later in the day, the same bus might transport high school students, two to a seat. Ask bus drivers if they want to be responsible for seeing that every student has buckled up.

As for a cause of Wednesday’s crash, it will be best to be patient. It took more than four years to conclude the investigation of the Liberty school bus accident in 2005 that killed two other drivers, severely injured two children and sent several dozen more children to the hospital.

The National Transportation Safety Board concluded that what’s called “pedal misapplication” was the cause, meaning the driver hit the accelerator, not the brake. In March, a civil jury reached the same decision.

To reach Mary Sanchez, call 816-234-4752 or send email to msanchez@kcstar.com.

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