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WTF: Why don't Vermont school buses have seat belts?

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot: We just had to ask...


Published August 31, 2011 at 8:28 a.m.
Updated September 16, 2016 at 3:13 p.m.

We live in an age when most parents zealously overprotect their children. Just ask Lenore Skenazy. In April 2008, the Queens, N.Y., writer and mother of two boys penned a column for the New York Sun called “Why I Let My 9-Year-Old Ride the Subway Alone.” Two days later, she was defending herself on MSNBC, Fox News and “Today.” One network identified her with the tagline “America’s Worst Mom?”

Skenazy, now an author and syndicated columnist, has a blog called Free-Range Kids. On it, she chronicles the fearmongering and alarmist behaviors perpetrated in the name of protecting children from every conceivable threat.

Among her targets: schools that go to extreme lengths for student safety. They include one school district in Houston, Texas, that now requires all students to wear electronic tracking devices to foil abductions; another, in Fairfax County, Va., banned all physical contact between students, no matter how innocent or benign.

“We are not daredevils. We believe in life jackets and bike helmets and air bags,” Skenazy writes on her site. “But we also believe in independence. Children, like chickens, deserve a life outside the cage. The overprotected life is stunting and stifling, not to mention boring for all concerned.”

Fair enough. But what about seat belts on school buses? In the event of an accident, should kids be allowed to shake around inside the bus like beans in a maraca? Not according to the National Coalition for School Bus Safety. For years, the advocacy group has pressed legislatures across the country to require shoulder and lap belts on all of the nation’s school buses. Yet only seven states do so, and Vermont isn’t one of them. Why not?

For one thing, because they don’t accomplish much, suggests John Ulczycki, vice president for strategic initiatives at the National Safety Council in Illinois. He claims that school-bus seat belts provide only “minimal” protection to passengers, in part because school buses are involved in so few accidents to begin with.

“School buses are the safest form of transportation on the roads, bar none,” he says. “Their crash rate is much lower than other motor vehicles. It’s not even close.”

Why? Lots of reasons, Ulczycki says. To begin with, motorists tend to drive differently around the big yellow carriers. For the most part, they stop when they see the red lights flashing, and they don’t tailgate school buses or cut them off in traffic. Also, the buses tend to travel at slower speeds and operate primarily during daylight hours.

Moreover, Ulczycki says, school buses generally have well-trained drivers who operate under stringent rules; for example, many states prohibit school-bus operators from talking on cellphones. Their rates of DUI and other driving offenses are far lower than those of the general motorist population. In fact, Ulczycki points out, the vast majority of injuries and fatalities associated with school buses aren’t caused by collisions at all, but by kids walking to and from the bus and stepping into traffic.

On the rare occasions when school buses do get into crashes, Ulczycki says, the accidents tend to be “horrific” in nature, such as getting rear-ended by a semi or overturning on an icy bridge. In such cases, he says, seat belts rarely improve the passengers’ likelihood of survival. In short, he concludes, the cost-benefit analysis simply doesn’t add up.

“I’m not saying that those one or two lives [saved] aren’t important. The life of every child is precious,” Ulczycki emphasizes. “But at what cost would we save one life? Would we ask an entire industry to spend a billion dollars to maybe save a few lives? That’s really the question.”

Paul Graves, at the Vermont Department of Motor Vehicles’ education and safety unit, agrees. Graves, who works on school-transportation issues in Vermont, explains that passengers are protected differently on school buses than in other vehicles. The buses are designed according to the principle of “compartmentalization”: In the event of an accident, the passengers hit the seats in front of them and are usually contained in that area. In most cases, they aren’t thrown through the windshield or ejected from the bus as they might be in a car without a seat belt.

The one type of accident in which seat belts might matter, Graves notes, is a rollover collision. But, as he puts it, “When was the last time anyone saw a school bus roll over?” During his five years at the DMV, Graves says, he’s never heard of one.

Mandatory changes in school-bus designs in recent years, such as extra padding and higher seat backs, have further reduced the rates of serious injuries, he adds.

Graves, who firmly advocates for wearing seat belts in all other vehicles, raises another issue: Who would monitor their use in buses? He says he’s spoken to a number of drivers whose school buses do have seat belts. Some claim the belts create as many problems as they solve, including cases of students beating each other with the metal buckles or linking the belts together across the aisle to trip other passengers … or the bus driver.

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