A year ago, 22 Pembroke Hill students and their driver sustained injuries when their school bus slid off a Kansas highway ramp, tipped and slammed onto the ground.
On Thursday, about 35 children attending a Pembroke Hill summer program boarded a long yellow school bus much like the one that wrecked — but with a big difference.
Seat belts. For all riders.
Pembroke Hill may be the first school in the region to require the safety devices on full-size buses, school officials say. Nationwide, the belts remain uncommon. Missouri and Kansas are among 44 states that do not require them.
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Even so, Pembroke officials decided that extra safety factor was most important.
“We just felt that it was imperative that we left no stone unturned and went the extra mile to ensure that our students are as safe as they can be,” said Steve Bellis, Pembroke Hill head of school. “All parents are concerned about their child’s safety, and so they applauded us for going in this direction.”
Federal transportation experts have said that school buses are one of the safest ways to travel. The high-back, padded seats are considered safe, and adding belts would be too costly for the incremental safety gained, officials have said.
Yet six states — California, Florida, Louisiana, New Jersey, New York and Texas — require the devices on school buses.
Other states have debated such legislation. In Missouri, a governor’s task force recommended mandatory seat belts in 2005 after several crashes statewide, including one in Liberty that killed two motorists and severely injured several students. But the recommendation never got implemented.
Pembroke, a private Kansas City school that starts classes Monday, does not use buses daily to transport students. But it uses them regularly for athletic teams and student field trips.
The school asked its bus contractor to provide vehicles with seat belts. Apple Bus Co. of Cleveland, Mo., purchased four new full-size school buses equipped with three-point shoulder and lap belts. The buses can be used for other customers when Pembroke doesn’t need them.
“When something happens like … it did last year, it just causes you to look even harder to ensure you are doing everything you can,” Bellis said.
In 2011, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration denied a petition that would have required installing three-point seat belts on all school buses. The agency said it did not find safety issues to support a federal requirement for the belts, and it said the cost “would exceeded the benefit.”
As a result, individual school districts and states still determine their own policies on seat belts.
Seats provide protection
Every year, more than 450,000 school buses transport about 25 million schoolchildren back and forth to school. That represents just more than half of the kindergarten-through-12th-grade student population, according to School Transportation News, an industry trade publication. The rest either walk or ride in private vehicles.
Studies have maintained that full-sized buses, which usually weigh more than 10,000 pounds and carry more than 10 passengers, are safe even without safety restraints.
Industry experts point to how the high-backed, padded seats form a compartment around riders. They often use an egg carton metaphor to describe the protection provided, said Michelle Cronk, a North Kansas City School District spokeswoman.
“(It) is designed to protect occupants by creating limited space for movement in a crash and well-padded surfaces to absorb crash forces,” she said.
School bus seating must have narrow spacing front to back, with high and well-padded breakaway seat backs and seat frames that absorb energy when a rider hits the seat cushion during a crash, Cronk said.
Seat belts could provide a slightly higher level of safety, said Charlie Hood, executive director for the National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services, which has members in all 50 states. But most state and federal officials don’t require them because they represent “such an incrementally small benefit,” he said.
Students in a large school bus are less vulnerable than in an automobile, experts say. Students are not seated near doors or large windows, so they are less likely to be thrown from the vehicle, according to safety officials.
But the National Transportation Safety Board noted in 1999 that the seat “compartments” did not protect passengers in rollovers and some other types of crashes. A study concluded that riders can be tossed around a bus in those cases.
The lack of school bus seat belts can be hard for some parents to accept, said Brad Welle, spokesman for the Grain Valley School District, which operates its own fleet of buses.
“The safest thing for a child in a personal vehicle is to have a seat belt on,” Welle said. “But school buses are designed in a way that those restraints are not needed. … For us parents, that is hard for us to fathom. Yet that is what the studies consistently show.”
Since 2008, federal law has required seat belts in all small school buses, such as those for special needs children. And they can be installed as needed in other cases, one district official points out.
“In some very isolated cases, if a student is on a behavior plan which requires him or her to have a seat belt, one may be retrofitted to a bus running that student’s route,” said Cathy Allie, a Raytown district spokeswoman.
Cost is a deterrent
The issue surfaces almost any time a school bus wreck seriously injures children.
And that happened in Liberty in May 2005.
Two motorists died and several students were injured when a school bus careened through a busy intersection and smashed into two vehicles waiting at a red traffic light. Both drivers of the other vehicles died.
Later that month, then-Gov. Matt Blunt convened a task force to examine school bus safety. It ultimately recommended that school buses be outfitted with seat belts.
Blunt developed a plan to help pay the costs, such as by charging higher fines for traffic offenses, including speeding through school zones. But districts still would have borne some of the costs.
The mandatory seat belt recommendation was not adopted, in part because of money issues, said former state Rep. Tim Flook, a task force member. Buses long have been manufactured seat-belt ready, but the additional cost ranges from $3,000 to $6,000 per bus, Flook said.
School districts and other education officials have been reluctant to commit to the investment, Flook said.
“This is a cost-shifting decision,” he said. “We will shift the cost of injury to the medical treatment side and health insurance side, rather than to the prevention side. You are either going to pay to install a bus with seat belts, or families are going to pay with injured kids, and the insurance industry is going to pay for the medical expenses.”
Flook also is a critic of industry injury data and crash analysis.
“A lot of people are duped by the data that says a school bus accident is rare,” he said. “The airline industry has never been duped by that. It has always recognized that what happens in a crash is really important. But in a school bus, there is limited testing, and the data on injuries is Swiss cheese.”
Today, the Liberty school district operates 91 buses, 64 of which run regular routes and do not have safety belts, according to Dallas Ackerman, school district spokesman.
“The safety of our students is priority number one, and safely transporting our students to and from school is of utmost importance,” he said.
Extra peace of mind
As young riders settled into their seats Thursday at Pembroke Hill, staff members reminded them, with enthusiasm, to buckle up.
“I need to see some seat belt action,” camp counselor Michele Nelson told them. “Get your seat belts buckled.”
School instructors and staff members had met a day earlier to discuss seat belt protocols for the coming school year. Following those protocols, staff members walked the bus aisle Thursday, double-checking to make sure the straps were adjusted properly before the bus rumbled out of the parking lot.
“I felt the buses already were safe; this is just an extra step,” said Paula Engetschwiler, the school’s auxiliary programs director.
“It’s extra peace of mind for parents and staff,” she said.
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