No seat belts on buses, yet

Published 8:47 pm Wednesday, October 27, 2010

After a three-year study of the effectiveness of seat belts on school buses, the recommendation is for school systems not to install them.

The University Transportation Center for Alabama and the Center for Advanced Public Safety concluded the more than $90,000 per bus to replace all existing buses with ones with seat belts could be used more effectively to combat other issues with busing.

“There appears to be a larger problem in the loading and unloading areas compared to the problems of students sitting on the school bus,” said Jay Lindly, director of the University Transportation Center of Alabama, UTCA.

Funding could be better used to train bus drivers, relocating loading or unloading zones at schools or public service announcements about bus safety, Lindly said.

According to UTCA, up to 75 percent of student fatalities occur outside of the bus in the loading and unloading zones.

Since 1977, there have only been five fatalities in two crashes on buses.

“It is true, that we would expect, that adding seat belts, if there were money to do so, would add even more safety, but we think that there are other more cost-effective ways of providing safety for more kids by looking at those loading and unloading zones,” Lindly said.

Because seat belts cannot be added to the current buses, it would take the state about 10 years to replace all buses.

“The structure of the buses was not built to support the seat belt,” said Dan Turner, professor emeritus of civil engineering at The University of Alabama and former director of the University Transportation Center for Alabama. “It’s not realistic to put seat belts on buses already running, so instead the best way is to put them on as you’re replacing buses.”

To accommodate the larger seats, which could withstand the impact of a crash, each bus would also lose about one row of seats per bus. The system could then potentially have to invest in more buses and hire more drivers for the remaining students.

School buses are already six to eight times safer than going to and from school in a car, and passing cars on or off school campuses cause students more fatalities.

In the study, from 2009 until 2010, 1,633 reported vehicles passed buses in the loading and unloading zones.

“Maybe we should have some public education to explain what the law says,” Turner said.

Selma City Schools operate 11 buses and the Dallas County Schools operate 90 buses.