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School Bus Safety Standards Called 'Incomplete'

(Story created: 11/8/05)

A lot has changed since 1977, but not school buses. That was the last time the federal government changed the basic safety standards for the vehicles that carry our most precious passengers. That's why school buses don't have seat belts.

NewsChannel 5's chief investigative reporter Phil Williams found the wreckage of what, for one school, ended up being a real-life test of seat belts on school buses.

"The seat belts were on the child who was sitting toward the front of the bus," says Dean Donehoo, administrative services director for the Murray County, Georgia, school system.

As children boarded the bus on March 28, 2000, a little girl named Brittany chose a seat that just happened to have a seat belt.

Out of habit, she buckled up.

Then, just 20 seconds later, as her friend Amber looked out the window, the bus pulled into the path of a speeding train.

The accident occurred just inside the Tennessee state line on the Georgia border.

"The child who was in the seat belt survived the accident and walked away from it with very minor injuries," Donehoo notes.

Investigator Cheri Carroll-Morgan says, "She was standing there talking to me when I go to the scene."

Investigators concluded that three children on that bus still might have been killed or severely injured.

But, like Brittany who was in the second row, three others who were critically injured might have walked away if they, too, had been buckled up.

"If a child can survive a collision with a train with a bruise across the belly, then why in the world do we not have seat belts on every single seat?" Carroll-Morgan asks.

But the folks who set safety standards at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration -- or NHTSA -- sent us the same statement that they give parents on their web site:

"School bus crash data show that a federal requirement for belts on buses would provide little, if any, added protection in a crash."

And NHTSA claims crash investigators at the National Transportation Safety Board "have come to the same conclusion."

"That's just an incorrect statement," says former Safety Board chairman Jim Hall. "It borders on being an untruth."

For almost 30 years, school bus safety in this country has been based on a concept called compartmentalization -- foam in the back, foam in the front -- to absorb the impact of a collision.

But the safety board says if the impact comes from the side, children could be seriously injured or killed.

And, if a school bus rolls over, video from an Ohio crash two years ago shows what could happen.

"If that school bus rolls over, there is a high likelihood that you are going to have children not only injured, but killed," Hall adds.

In fact, a year before the school bus-train collision, the Safety Board's own study concluded:

"Current compartmentalization is incomplete in that it does not protect school bus passengers during lateral impacts with vehicles of large mass and in rollovers."

It recommended that NHTSA come up with new safety standards, possibly including seat belts, within two years.

That was six years ago.

"NHTSA hasn't done anything," Hall says.

The agency says it did conduct one side impact test and concluded that, even without belts, most children were not likely to be seriously injured in such crashes.

"Look at where the test dummies are in relation to the impact area," Phil Williams suggests to Hall, who responds:

"One where the impact area is."

Our investigation discovered that the test dummies were not placed across from the impact area -- the very spot where crash experts say the most needless injuries or deaths occur.

"The laws of physics will tell you that children opposite the aisle will be thrown into the impact zone, and that's where exactly where you don't want children to be," says seat belt developer James Johnson.

Hall adds, "This is not how anyone with common sense would set up and do a test."

The former Safety Board chairman says school buses share the road with big rigs that present a much greater danger today than 30 years ago, when current safety standards were set.

But he fears it will take more scenes like the school bus-train collision before other children enjoy the same protections that Brittany had on that day.

"The thing that will drive safety in a minute is a tragedy."

Despite the human suffering in such crashes, for the federal government, it's partly a matter of money.

NHTSA's study did find that a combination lap-shoulder belt could save lives.

But the agency questions whether it would save enough lives to be worth the cost.

More information:
National Highway Traffic Safety Administration position paper -- Defends compartmentalization (the current safety standard)
NHTSA's Report to Congress -- Finds some potential benefits to lap-shoulder belts
National Transportation Safety Board study -- Finds compartmentalization "incomplete"
NTSB investigation -- Report of bus-train collision reaffirms limits of compartmentalization
School Transportation News -- Analysis of seat belt debate
National Coalition for School Bus Safety -- Position of advocacy group
Safeguard -- Web site of seat belt developer
State of Missouri -- Gov. Matt Blunt pushes lap-shoulder belt on new buses

Contact the governor
Contact state senators
Contact state representatives

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