The West Virginia Board of Education has decided it will not require seat belts on school buses, even though the National Transportation Safety Board and the American Academy of Physicians recommend them.
It’s a complicated question filled with supposedly simple solutions, but the school board probably made the correct decision.
This is not the first time state and local officials have decided whether to require seat belts on buses, and it probably won’t be the last. The thing is that advocates of seat belts have yet to make a case that the benefits outweigh the costs and the risks.
From a cost standpoint, seat belts are expensive. They would add several thousand dollars to the price of a new bus, which is already north of $70,000. The cost of buses is already going up as more are being ordered with air conditioning. It wasn’t until recently in Cabell County that only buses transporting students with special needs had air conditioning, which is a necessity. Now all new buses come with air conditioning.
Seat belts take space, and they can reduce a bus’ seating capacity by 25 to 30 percent. Thus, more buses would be required on routes that are already crowded.
Cost aside, having seat belts on school buses is a tradeoff of risks. There’s no question that having students restrained by belts would reduce injuries during a rollover accident, but there’s also the question of how those students would be rescued from the bus once the rolling stopped.
Buses today are designed to protect students through compartmentalization. Students sit in seats with high, padded backs designed to cushion the impact should a collision occur. Drivers, though, find that high-back seats prevent them from adequately monitoring student behavior because the high seat backs provide such good hiding places.
Recently Thomas Built Buses, a major supplier of buses to larger school systems in West Virginia, announced a recall of 53,528 buses manufactured from 2014 through 2020 because seats did not have adequate padding. Thomas has yet to identify which buses in West Virginia, if any, are affected. Once school systems are notified, Thomas Dealers will replace the padding.
For the past 13 years or so, every bus Cabell County has bought has been from Thomas Built Buses. Wayne County has begun to buy Thomas buses instead of buses from IC Corp. Kanawha County also has a fleet heavy with Thomas buses.
Another argument against seat belts: In case of a fire, a driver would have to see that every student, some of whom would be panicking, was free from belts. That could be a time-consuming task when seconds count.
Eventually, through problems with compartmentalization or with seat belts, aides may be placed on buses to ensure student safety and behavior. It may not come soon, but it would be another expense local school systems would incur.
Seat belt advocates have yet to make a compelling reason for having belts in buses. A common question they ask is that cars are required to have seat belts, so why aren’t buses? The answer is that cars and buses are two different environments for riders.
School bus fatalities are rare, and most happen outside the bus. Given the costs involved and the tradeoff of risks, seat belt advocates have a long road to travel to get belts on buses in West Virginia.