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From Phil Williams:
Could the debate over seat belts on school buses soon turn a new corner?
Over the summer, the federal government signaled that it may back away from its long-held position that seat belts aren't really needed on school buses.
This issue has been a focus of the NewsChannel 5 Investigates team for almost two years. Our "Precious Cargo" investigation focused on the lessons from one deadly crash and culminated in 2005 with this documentary:
For photojournalist Bryan Staples and myself, it was a story that touched us deeply. (If you haven't seen it -- or haven't seen it in a while -- we think it's worth another look.)
As our investigation discovered, the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) -- the agency that's supposed to make sure our vehicles are safe -- had long insisted that seat belts aren't needed on the vehicles that transport our most precious cargo.
"School bus crash data show that a federal requirement for belts on buses would provide little, if any, added protection in a crash," the agency's official position declared.
NHTSA insisted that compartmentalization -- the cushioning of children between padded seats like eggs in an egg carton -- was good enough.
Today, that statement no longer enjoys a prominent position on NHTSA's website.
Instead, this summer, NHTSA convened a day-long public meeting on the "safety benefits, economic factors and other issues related to requiring seat belts on large school buses."
That followed last November's deadly crash of Huntsville school bus that plunged off an overpass, killing four students.
Opening the public meeting, Transportation Secretary Mary E. Peters said that it may not be enough that few children die in school bus accidents.
"The question we should ask is how we can make this number lower still, so that no parent ever has to hear the heartbreaking news that the cherished child they sent off in the bus in the morning is never coming home," Peters said.
"I remember placing the call to Governor Riley after the tragic Huntsville crash that killed four students, and the heartbreak I heard in the Governor's voice that day. It makes me determined to find the answer, even if it requires opening up old decisions, and challenging old assumptions."
In fact, until our investigation back in 2005, NHTSA's official statement also included the claim that crash investigators at the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) had "come to the same conclusion" that seat belts weren't really needed.
That was false.
The NTSB had concluded in 1999 that "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.
Now, eight years later, the NTSB is working on another report relating to the Huntsville crash.
Add to that, the Journal of Pediatrics published an article last year, noting that -- while fatalities are low -- 17,000 school bus riders receive serious injuries every year that require trips to hospitals.
Now, Secretary Peters said "it is time to look at belts on buses."
"We use seatbelts to protect our families in our own vehicles, so it seems counterintuitive to let these vulnerable children ride in school buses without similar protection," Peters said. "And I have to wonder if we are sending a confusing message."
She added that she is "willing to make the argument one way or the other; but first, I want to be absolutely certain I am defending the right policy for the right reasons. If there are engineering or other issues..., we are very open to hearing them.
"But our first priority must be the safety of our children."