Alabama School Bus Seat Belt Study Adds to Controversy

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When it comes to controversy, no topic stands out quite like school bus seat belts. Both NASDPTS and NAPT this year presented information from the recently-released pilot program from Alabama, which resulted from the fatal 2006 Huntsville crash that killed four teenage girls after the school bus in which they were riding plunged 30 feet off of a highway overpass.

“Seat belts are emotional because of the loss of life,” said Dr. Ray Turner, the study’s lead.

NTSB investigated and could not determine if seat belts would have saved the lives of the four girls, who were seated toward the front of the bus. Others have said the type of crash wasn’t survivable, due to the type of drop from the overpass onto the nose of the Type C bus. The driver hadn’t been wearing his seat belt and was thrown from the school bus sometime after another car collided with it but before the bus struck a highway wall and then went over the edge.

While pointing out that school buses are the safest vehicles on the road to the tune of six to eight times safer than automobiles, the Alabama study ultimately found that the cost of equipping school buses with lap/shoulder belts far outweighed the benefit. Only five students have died on Alabama school buses since 1977, when NHTSA required major structural improvements. The study said school bus seats with lap/shoulder belts could cost the state $118 million in new funding over the 10-year phase-in of seats and $12 million each following year. Those costs could skyrocket to $1.4 billion over 10 years and $237 million each year thereafter if aides were used on school buses to ensure proper use of seat belts.

But according to a NHTSA’s Value of a Statistical Life (VSL) model, Alabama would only realize a reduction of 0.13 fatalities and 0.76 injuries per year attributed to school bus seat belts, generating an annual benefit of $2.75 million per year. Instead, the study recommended that money would be better spent in addressing child safety in the loading and unloading zone, as an average of eight student riders have died outside the school bus annually over the last 10 years.

“Safety attention should first be directed toward loading/unloading zones,” the report reads. “This will provide more and faster improvement to school bus safety than school bus seat belts.”

The study results certainly have thrilled some who have remained staunchly opposed to seat belts in the transportation world’s ultimate vehicle when it comes to safety. But others were not as easily sold. For starters, following a question from Ron Lampartner, owner of Syntec Seating Solutions and M2K, Turner admitted during a presentation at the NASDPTS meeting that the study drew upon four of five school bus seat belt studies that were completed before the 2008 NHTSA final rule that goes into effect next fall.

According to Bob Knapp, executive VP at C.E. White, that presents a big problem, as assumptions made in the study regarding a reduction in passenger capacity have been rendered moot thanks to flex-seat technology.

“Once NHTSA’s final ruling was announced in October 2008 stating the new seat back height as well as the impact and deflection criteria required for the seat backs, we realized that we would be able to shorten the seat back and thin down the back foam,” he recently told STN. “This now allows the three-point, lap/shoulder belt seat to take up no more space than today’s standard school bus seat. The standards also allowed us to taper the sides of the seats to allow for a 15-inch hip spacing at a 12-inch aisle spacing, the same as today’s standard school bus seats.

“NHTSA’s final ruling also allowed placing three passengers on a 39-inch seat. If the study was run today, the University of Alabama would find that they can achieve three occupants on each side of the aisle and 12 rows of seats in a standard 71 passenger school bus that they stated is the current configuration.”

reduction of 0.13 fatalities and 0.76 injuries per year attributed to school bus seat belts generates an annual benefit of $2.75 million per year.