National Coalition For School Bus Safety
National Coalition For School Bus Safety


Three Students Die in School Bus Crash
Huntsville, Alabama
November 21, 2006

Reply from Arthur L. Yeager, DMD, MMH

Wreck sparks talk on bus safety, seat-belt use

News spread quickly Monday morning about the tragic school bus accident in Huntsville and generated talk among many about the use, or lack of use, of seat belts on school buses.

By early afternoon, news had spread that three Lee High School students were confirmed dead and at least three were reported as critically injured after their bus plunged off an I-565 overpass and fell 30 feet. The students were en route to the Hunstville Center for Technology.

Florence school system administrators watched television news coverage of the accident.

"We're just sick about this tragedy, and we're fully aware it could have just as easily happened here," said Florence schools Superintendent Kendy Behrends. "Our hearts go out to those families."

Laidlaw Transit Co. contracts buses for the Florence district as well as Huntsville. The company operates 47 bus routes for the Florence district.

Florence Schools Transportation Director Randy Pettus said his district has been pleased with Laidlaw's performances on all fronts, particularly from a student safety standpoint.

"That's the most important factor, and Laidlaw has an excellent safety record," he said, adding that the Laidlaw fleet in Florence was recently named as having the safest driving record in the state.

"The minor fender-benders we've had, have been the faults of the other drivers," he said. "We're well pleased with the services Laidlaw provides and feel they hold safety as the number one priority."

Questions have been raised regarding seat belts on buses and if they would have prevented death or serious injury in the Monday accident.

Carol Clemmons, Laidlaw's branch manager in Florence, said seat belts in most cases would be detrimental to passengers aboard buses. Such research, she said, is what keeps buses from having seat belts.

"A lot of technology goes into engineering the buses," Clemmons said. "In smaller children, there's a high risk of spinal cord injuries from seat belts if used on buses. The buckles could also be used as weapons on the bus and there's likewise no way to monitor (the children) to make sure they stay buckled."

The only buses that have seat belts are specially designed for handicapped students.

Dexter Newton, shop foreman for the Lauderdale County school district bus garage, said schools follow state law regarding seat belts on buses.

"Unless the issue comes up nationally, and the law is changed at that level, there won't be seat belts," said Newton, a 33-year employee of the Lauderdale district.

"In my many years here, I've seen time and time again that the school bus is the safest vehicle on the road. They're tested and built to withstand major impact," Newton said.

Newton said he knows of nothing that would have changed the outcome of Monday's accident. He says he can speculate that seat belts may have helped.

"Going off a ramp and plunging that far, yes, seat belts could help, but there are far more cases where (seat belts) would be a detriment," Newton said.

Colbert County High School senior Michelle Mooney said every classroom at school watched the news Monday. It sparked discussion in her classes.

"Seat belts would be beneficial because even just hitting bumps, you fly up off the seat without a seat belt," Mooney said. "Who can say for sure, but I don't think there would have been the fatalities or as serious of injuries if there had been seat belts on that bus."

By Lisa Singleton-Rickman

Dear Mrs. Singleton-Rickman:

Re: Today's article on seat belts
November 21, 2006

Saw your article and read statements of those opposed to seat belts on school buses.  Here are some things to consider.

When they are talking of seat belts they are referring to the old fashioned lap type seat belt which can cause harm in some severe front end, accidents because passengers "jackknife" over the belt, hitting their heads on the seat back or the belt can ride up causing harm to the belly.   The three point belt, like in cars, holds the torso in place and eliminates the chances of belt injury.  Three point belts are now required for all new buses in California and are a current production line feature of school bus manufacturers.

Re overall school bus safety, a recent study published in the Academy of Pediatricians journal Pediatrics determined that bus safety has been persistently exaggerated by school bus officials and reported that there are at least double the number of injuries in school bus operations than have been officially stated.

Last week the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) added restraints on school buses to their highly respected "Most Wanted List"

Why are there no seat belts on school buses?

Those who transport the children will tell you that seat belts are not needed because children are safely "compartmentalized" between high back, well anchored padded seats.

Here are some facts that you may find of interest:

While school buses may appear to be reasonably safe, many parents become concerned when they find that their large school buses are not equipped with seat belts.  After all, from the time their youngsters came home from the hospital, mother and dad have been careful to place their children in child restraints.

Now, on the way to school, the habit of seat belt use painstakingly learned is about to be broken.

Thirty-five years ago in California, automotive engineers performed a classic series of school bus crash studies, which determined that the major cause for injury in school bus accidents was the inadequacy of  school bus seats.

They proposed “compartmentalization” of the child occupants between high-back, well-padded and well-anchored seats capable of absorbing crash forces and proposed that massive aisle side panels be installed to contain riders.  A lap belt was also suggested to provide substantial additional protection.

Then, in 1977, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), the Agency responsible for U.S. school bus safety standards followed by Transport Canada ordered some of the proposed features; a seat better anchored, padded and 4 inches higher than seats then in use.  However, the standard fell far short by failing to include the all-important compartmentalizing side panel, and the lap belt.  As a result “compartmentalization” was significantly compromised, working adequately for front-end crashes but providing no passenger protection in side impacts and bus rollovers.

Although the failure of the school bus seat to properly “compartmentalize” in side impact and rollover accidents has been detailed to authorities in petitions, during legislative testimony and at forums, the responsible agencies have stubbornly ignored the deficiency.

Although front-end school bus crashes occur only about one-third of the time, school bus regulators in both Canada and in the United States have persisted in obscuring the absence of lateral and rollover protection by testing and evaluating the seat entirely for front-end crashes and never measuring what happens to passengers in side impact and rollover accidents. It is characteristic of front-end crash testing to show the seat to its best advantage and seat belts at their most inefficient.

Furthermore, testing only those circumstances where the seat will perform well leads to conclusions that serve to exaggerate the safety of school buses and implies a level of safety that is invalid.  By way of example, imagine a vehicle that has good steering but faulty brakes. 

If only the steering is tested the authorities are able to insist that the vehicle is safe.  And no matter how many times the vehicle is tested, if only the steering is checked, the myth of safety continues. 

In the meanwhile, the inadequacy of the braking system continues to cause harm.

While the motive for the unrelenting denial this obvious defect is unclear, the resultant harm caused by “compromised compartmentalization” to the child passengers is most evident.

In September of 1999 the highly respected National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) issued a report on school bus crashworthiness.  The study described a series of school bus accidents where “compartmentalization” failed to protect the passengers.  Children were injured and killed as a result of both ejection and being tossed violently within the bus itself.  The Board concluded that, “Current compartmentalization” is incomplete in that it does not protect school bus passengers during lateral impacts and in rollovers, because in such accidents, passengers do not always remain completely within the seating compartment." They explained that those who were propelled from the compartment during collisions were more likely to be injured.

Once again authorities have failed miserably in addressing the problem of “compromised compartmentalization” in school bus side impact and rollover accidents.  As a direct result, children will continue to be killed and injured in school bus accidents.

Concerned parents should demand that local and state officials take more seriously their responsibilities to protect their children.

Arthur L. Yeager, DMD, MMH

For the past 30 years, as an officer of Physicians for Automotive Safety and the National Coalition for School Bus Safety, Dr. Yeager has been a leader in efforts to improve school bus safety

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