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School bus seat belts a possibility

Design changes are on the way for school buses nationwide, and those alterations will include seat belts for some buses. At Pine Level Elementary School, Gov. Bob Riley and Deputy U.S. Transportation Secretary Thomas Barrett got a firsthand look at this pilot project.

Smaller school buses will have to be equipped with lap-and-shoulder seat belts. Larger buses also will have higher seat backs. The design change is supposed to keep older, heavier students from being thrown over the seats in a collision.

All of these bus policy changes were announced at a press conference at the Autauga County school Wednesday.

The seat belts will only have to be installed in new buses weighing 5 tons or less, and the requirement will not take effect until 2011. These smaller school buses are already required to have lap belts, but not the safer, harness-style belts. There is no seat belt requirement for larger buses.

Transportation Secretary Mary Peters said she stopped short of requiring seat belts for larger buses because that could limit the number of children that can squeeze into seats, forcing some children to travel in ways that aren’t as safe as school buses.

School districts sometimes expect as many as three younger children to share a bus seat, but if there are only two belts installed per seat then fewer children can ride the bus.

These changes are a welcome. It is good that the restrictions are not put on the larger buses at this time, but it is possible that some kinds of seatbelts may be needed even on the larger buses.

However, this is a step in the right direction. No one wants to see a tragedy like what happened last year in Huntsville when several students were killed when a bus ran off a bridge. We just hope that our school leaders and state officials will continue to look at ways to make school bus travel safer.