Seat belt conundrum

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“Did you know that ‘if‘ is the middle word in ‘life‘?” -Walter Kurtz, Apocalypse Now


Everyone knows that wearing a seat belt in a motor vehicles vastly improves your chances of surviving a vehicle crash. That‘s a given. So it would seem a no-brainer to equip all U.S. school buses with seat belts.


And yet ... school bus crashes remain the rarest of incidents on the roadways today. In fact, the greatest dangers to children, according to years of data gathered from the Fatal Analysis Reporting System (FARS), are the areas around school buses, as well as the routes to and from school. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) argues that school buses are an incredibly safe form of transportation - probably one of the safest on the road today - making the addition of seat belts to buses a negligible benefit.


That‘s one of the reasons why Christopher Murphy, chairman of the Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA), is but one of several prominent voices opposing the Department of Transportation‘s recent Notice of Proposed Rulemaking to mandate seat belts on school buses. The reason? Money.


“According to the proposed rule, school districts that decide to add seat belts could apply for existing federal highway safety grant funds to cover the cost of the additional safety equipment,” he said. “While this use of grant funds is not new, the additional focus on the issue may cause states to be pressured to spend federal highway safety money for this purpose to the detriment of many competing highway safety needs.”


In a recent press statement, he used Maryland as an example. That state receives approximately $3.3 million each year for its basic behavioral highway safety program. But if the seat belt rule went into effect, Maryland could spend that full amount on adding seat belts to school buses yet still not equip them all - and wouldn‘t be able to fund other highway safety efforts.


“We want to ensure that federal highway safety funds are spent in areas that will have the most lifesaving benefit,” Murphy said. “ Largely these are directed to critical occupant protection, drunk driving and speeding programs. As these funds are limited, they could be quickly devoured if a state is pressured to use its federal funding for seat belts on school buses.”


To solve this issue, the GHSA wants more money - federal funds specifically set aside to cover the cost of adding seat belts to school buses. But in these tight times - especially with the economy for all intents and purposes in a recession - that seems unlikely at this stage.


More germane to the discussion is this: Are seat belts needed on school buses? The statistics show school bus crashes are rare, but that doesn‘t mean they don‘t happen. It all comes back to the word ‘if‘ in my view - if the bus doesn‘t crash, then you don‘t seat belts. However, several years ago, such a crash DID occur in Arlington County, VA (where I grew up) between a school bus and garbage truck, injuring 15 children and leaving one of them dead. Would a seat belt have saved the child? Probably - the driver of the school bus walked away from the crash, as she was belted in.


But how do you make sure the kids belt themselves in - and don‘t undo the belts mid-trip, for instance? There‘s always the human factor, but by and large, since we are now belting our kids into a variety of seats in our personal vehicles since the day they are born, I would think by now seat belts are reflexive behavior, at least for most children.


I personally think it‘s worth the money to put seat belts on school buses. It‘s just not worth the risk, however small, not to have them in case a crash occurs. But with funds so tight, it could indeed create a financial headache for the states to handle. Yet I think it‘s a headache the state‘s can and should manage. Keeping vehicle occupants as safe as possible is something you just can‘t skimp on.

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