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Experts Say Lap-Shoulder Belts Could Reduce Injuries

(Story created: 11/9/05)

Federal regulators say seat belts could save some lives if placed on school buses. Still, they question whether it would save enough lives to be worth the cost. But one group that's not often discussed is the injured.

Two years ago, Marisa Rowland celebrated her eighth birthday -- a birthday her mom feared she'd never see.

Just a few months earlier, a Metro Nashville school bus -- that her parents thought was completely safe -- slammed into a pickup truck on a slippery road.

The accident sent the little girl into a coma and left her battling a serious brain injury.

"I just fell out of my seat and it hurt my head," Marisa said at the time.

Seat belt developer James Johnson says,  "What people don't realize is, while school buses remain the safest form of transportation, there are still 9,000 serious injuries annually in our yellow school buses."

Johnson knows firsthand. His Indianapolis-based company, IMMI, boasts that it has crash-tested more school buses than anyone else in the country, including the federal government.

And Johnson can show you proof from those crash tests that the bus isn't always the cocoon that it's made out to be.  In one video, a child sitting on the aisle falls into the floor during a crash.

"That child would have been injured?" NewsChannel 5's chief investigative reporter Phil Williams asks Johnson.

"That child could very well be injured in a frontal collision," he replies, "because they don't have that seat back in front of them to catch them."

That's why Johnson's company developed a combination lap-shoulder belt specifically designed for school buses.

And he can show what would happen in a rollover -- with those seatbelts and without.

"In a rollover, children are tossed around like clothes in a dryer. So, you can see the effectiveness of the lap and shoulder belt."

In fact, the investigation of a bus-train collision on the Tennessee-Georgia border concluded that three children who were critically injured might have just walked away if they'd just been wearing lap-shoulder belts.

And after a bus flipped and skidded down a busy New York Expressway just over a month ago, investigators attributed the lack of serious injuries to the fact that the children were wearing lap belts -- even though they are not as safe as lap-shoulder belts.

"They were just designed to keep people in, to keep them from being ejected -- whereas lap and shoulder belts were designed to help reduce injuries," Johnson explains.

Because these belts are designed to be used by children, they're made so that buckling up is as easy as 1-2-3.

And at Heritage Christian School in Indianapolis, we found students do just that.

"It's fun when you have no seat belt, but that's not safe," one little girl says.

After a test project that began with just one bus, even reluctant bus drivers become believers - especially when they realized it was keeping children in their seats.

"As a driver, I like it because I'm not looking in this mirror as much. I'm looking at the road," Donna Perrott says, pointing to her bus mirror.

And parents agree.

"Truly, that was the selling point to allow my children to be on the bus," mother Beth King says.

Johnson says, "The lap and shoulder belt in every vehicle that's ever been introduced has reduced injuries by up to 45%."

One downside that Johnson hears from school officials is that, because they wouldn't be able to pack so many children into a seat, they'd have to buy more buses.

And that could mean more taxpayer money.

"If a school system says we don't know if we can afford this or not, what do you say to them?" Williams asks.

"I'm not sure that you can't afford it," he replies.

He says that school officials aren't just gambling with test dummies, they are playing the odds -with real children, real lives.

Marisa's mother said, "It's not a risk. You're talking about a person. It's not numbers. It's not odds. It's people."

Local school officials say, these days, their main obstacle is money.

Some put the extra cost per bus at between $3,000 and $12,000 -- plus the cost of some additional buses.

As of July 1st, every new bus in California must have lap-shoulder belts. Four states have lap belt laws: Florida, Louisiana, New Jersey and New York.

Missouri's governor is now pushing a law to require lap-shoulder belts.

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
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