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Local officials weigh in on bus seat belt debate

November 30, 1999|By ERIN CUNNINGHAM

âEUR¢ 17,800 ?� Number of students transported twice each day

âEUR¢ 47 ?� Number of schools served in the county

âEUR¢ 262 ?� Number of bus drivers

âEUR¢ 164 ?� Number of bus routes

âEUR¢� More than 2.7 million ?� Number of miles school buses travel annually

WASHINGTON COUNTY

Students have more than one month before going back to school in Washington County, and recently officials discussed whether they should be wearing seat belts when they do.

The U.S. Department of Transportation held a public forum on the effectiveness of seat belts on school buses last week, revisiting a topic that has been the subject of debate for years.

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Washington County Public Schools Transportation Supervisor Barbara Scotto said students do not have seat belts unless they are riding a bus that serves students with special needs.

She and the U.S. Department of Transportation both agree, though, that school buses are the safest form of transportation.

According to research by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, an average of 21 deaths involving school-aged children and school buses occur each year. Of those killed, six are passengers inside school buses, and 15 involve pedestrians around school buses.

In Washington County, about 17,800 students are transported by school buses twice each day, officials have said.

Scotto said the buses used locally meet the current federal standards for large school buses, which protects students with the concept of "compartmentalization." That concept combines flexible, energy-absorbent, high seat backs and narrow spacing between each row to create a compartment that confines a student during a crash, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation.

"The seats, the way they're designed right now, it's like an egg create ... energy absorbing," Scotto said.

The current design of school buses means that the only seat belts that could be installed are lap belts, which Scotto said could be more dangerous than nothing at all.

"In a forward crash, the student would be thrust forward," she said. "(The student) would strike the seat in front with their head, causing head and neck injuries."

She recommended that if there is a mandate to use seat belts on school buses, that the interiors be redesigned to allow shoulder and lap belts.

"The entire interior would need to be redesigned to have lap and shoulder belts," she said. "That would reduce seating capacity from three to two (in each seat)."

Scotto also said that compliance might be a factor. The school system could be required to supply seat belts for the students, but there is no guarantee they will strap themselves in.

"If laws were eventually passed that required seat belts, we would have to have monitors on every bus to ensure compliance of use," she said.

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