Skip to content Skip to left sidebar Skip to right sidebar Skip to footer

Should school buses have seat belts?

Whether one rollover in 50 years justifies adding seat belts to the county’s school buses was discussed during the Oct. 17 meeting of the Board of Education Safety Committee.
Chair William Brinkley said the committee has been tasked by the BOE to look at the school system safety procedures for the buses and the training of its drivers. The request follows the Sept. 20 crash of a bus carrying 39 David Crockett High School students on Mount Wesley Road in Telford.
“The board has had extensive discussions of seat belts, but we need to look at the information and consider it again,” Brinkley said.
Director of Schools Ron Dykes said those previous discussions led board members to the same conclusion reached by organizations such as the National Highway Safety Administration and the National School Transportation Association.
“When you consider that wrecks and fatalities are so rare, you reach the rationale of why seat belts on school buses are not required,” Dykes said.
High-back seats, reinforced side walls and ceilings are designed to minimize impact without using seat belts, which could pose their own danger. Children can become trapped in the belts, and rescue personnel can have trouble cutting the belts if there are bleeding issues or the child is unconscious.
“Sometimes you only have minutes or seconds to get them out, such as in the case of a fire,” Dykes said.
Logistics are another consideration. Research indicates retrofitting the current seats may not be possible. New seats that each contain three belts could be purchased, but these seats are larger and would reduce the number of passengers each bus could carry. Installing a larger seat than the buses were made for could prevent the bus from meeting certification standards.
BOE Vice Chair Chad Williams asked Dykes if he had spoken with any of the systems that use seat belts.
“It is truly dependent on the child’s responsibility to buckle in, and the practical application was so many are not wearing them,” Dykes said.
In addition, the systems are losing 10-15 belts per week as a result of students cutting them loose and taking them inside the school buildings to use as weapons.
Some systems started with adult monitors on the buses to ensure students were wearing the belts, but the cost was prohibitive since it was almost like adding a second driver. Liability may be increased if the bus has seat belts but some of the students are not wearing them at the time of an accident.
“I think the important thing is the same rationale the board used in not putting them in (earlier) still exists,” Dykes said. “We have to make the right decisions based on the evidence of what is best for students.”
Dykes also estimates it would take 15 years to replace the system’s 110 buses, which are purchased at a staggered rate.
Brinkley said challenges involved with acquiring seat belts must be weighed against the potential consequences. “If we put them on and something happens, would we wish we hadn’t done it?” he said.
Another option discussed was placing a global positioning system on each vehicle that could track the location of the bus and rate of speed at which it was traveling. Cost for installation, software, equipment and training is estimated at $20,000 per bus, with an annual $30,000 licensing fee for the fleet.
At the request of the committee, Dykes will prepare a report for further consideration by the full board.
As far as the conduct of the bus drivers, Dykes said the system receives few complaints and most involve a personality issue or relate to the discipline of a student rider.
“We never disregard a complaint even though most individuals will not leave their names,” Dykes said. “We immediately investigate and talk with the driver.”
Dykes said the system obtains background checks on all drivers prior to hiring them, and each driver receives 40 hours of training before being assigned a route.
“The (training) includes ride-alongs, driving in confined areas and driving back roads,” he said. “Drivers also participate in an annual day of professional development conducted by the Tennessee Highway Patrol.”
According to Dykes, random drug testings are performed, and many of the drivers have been with the system for decades.
In addition to annual inspections and regular maintenance, drivers complete morning and evening check sheets during visual walk-around inspections. “This is another tertiary method of dealing with safety,” Dykes said.