Deadly school bus wrecks nearly two years ago have prompted federal officials to reverse a long-standing policy and recommend lap-and-shoulder safety restraints on all future school bus purchases.
But there are caveats, from costs to unintended safety consequences, to this recommendation that have local school transportation directors expressing some concern.
“It tends to come up every time there’s a bus accident,” said Jerry Castleberry, transportation director for Gainesville City Schools.
The seat-belt shift was among several bus-safety recommendations prompted by the National Transportation Safety Board’s investigation of two school bus crashes in November 2016, in Baltimore and Chattanooga, which injured 37 people and killed 12.
Federal agencies and national student transportation organizations have been at odds on the seat-belt issue for decades.
The NTSB’s previous position was that the weight and design of school buses and their high-backed seats provided sufficient safety for children, particularly in frontal and rear-impact crashes.
And the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, for example, decided the best way to provide crash protection to passengers of large school buses is through a concept called “compartmentalization.”
However, students often are thrown from their seat during side impacts and rollovers.
Castleberry said none of the buses in his fleet, with the exception of buses for special education students, are equipped with safety restraints.
But adding seat belts would reduce capacity on each bus, which could then require the purchase of additional buses and the hiring of new drivers.
“The seats are 39 inches wide,” Castleberry said.
Gainesville is already adding three new buses to its fleet for the next school year at a cost of about $300,000, and a driver shortage prompted the board of education to allocate $50,000 to recruit and retain bus drivers this year.
Castleberry said his biggest concern, however, was the potential for safety restraints to actually cause harm.
With young students, for example, a fire or watery wreck could potentially hinder their ability to free themselves from the seatbelts, Castleberry said.
“Could you imagine being on a school bus with kindergarteners, first-grade kids … and the bus should catch fire and you’re trying to evacuate them?” he asked.
Clay Hobbs, transportation director for Hall County Schools, said he expected the NTSB’s change of heart would be adopted at “some point in the future.”
And while Hobbs understands the public’s perception about the value of lap-and-shoulder restraints on school buses, he agrees with Castleberry that other factors are at play.
The economics of buying buses with safety restraints installed or adding seatbelts to existing buses is one consideration, Hobbs said.
The Georgia Department of Education estimates that it costs between $9,000 and $12,000 to equip buses with seatbelts, according to spokeswoman Meghan Frick.
And “a lot of school systems are behind on funding their school bus fleet,” Hobbs said.
Hall County is adding 27 “newer” buses for the 2018-19 academic year, Hobbs said, which puts the school district in “better shape than we’ve been in in quite a while.”
But adding seat belts could also mean adding insurance liability to school districts.
For example, Hobbs asked, who would be responsible for monitoring and ensuring students are buckled up? And what financial responsibility would they have if a student is injured on a bus while unrestrained?
“All of those types of eventualities are going to have to be dealt with,” Hobbs added.
The NTSB now is recommending that all states and territories that lack requirements for lap/shoulder belts on large school buses enact legislation.
Currently, Georgia school districts have the option to purchase school buses equipped with seat belts, but it is not mandated by federal or state law.
Fulton and Gwinnett counties are the only metro-area school districts that have already added regular buses equipped with seat belts.
The state’s elected education chief says he will urge “the appropriation of funds for bus safety upgrades.”
“Given the costs involved … Superintendent (Richard) Woods would strongly support the appropriation of funds for bus safety upgrades,” Frick said. “This would make it much more feasible for local districts to include seat belts, or make other safety upgrades, on all school buses purchased.”