Bus seat belt study hits some bumps

Published 6:28 pm Friday, October 17, 2008

MONTGOMERY – Alabama’s pilot study on using seat belts to increase school bus safety hit a couple of bumps early on over difficulties monitoring whether young riders kept the belts buckled.

But leaders of the three-year project, which began at 12 Alabama schools in August, said the problems did not appear insurmountable as they develop guidance on new seat belt requirements for the 25 million students who ride buses nationally.

“I consider these minor. I’ve done a lot of these type projects and all of them have little bugs you have to work out,” said University of Alabama civil engineering professor Dan Turner, who is heading the study.

Bus drivers in the study have complained that the required higher seat backs make it harder for them to see their passengers, and researchers have found the seats sometimes block out cameras meant to record students’ belt usage.

Some cameras were also mounted badly or positioned in ways that made them unable to record the students’ actions.

Turner said that some of the cameras have been remounted, and that researchers began getting data from school systems in September. They’re already fielding questions from curious industry-types keeping tabs on the study.

“I think everyone’s holding their breath,” Turner said. “I know that other states are very interested in the results, and I think that there will be a great many states who set their policy on what we find.”

Alabama developed the $1.4 million study through discussions that began after four Lee High School teens were killed in Huntsville when their bus careened off an interstate overpass in November 2006, with students flung from their seats before impact.

Twelve seat belt-equipped buses were purchased for 10 participating school systems, and six bus aides were hired to make sure students complied.

More drivers were hired and buses were added to the school systems’ fleets to compensate for lost seating capacity due to the addition of belts — buses with belts seat about 54 students, while those without seat 72.

Officials hope to learn how much students will use the belts and how they will behave on buses equipped with the restraints.

Autauga County bus driver George Caudle said he quickly observed a pattern with the students he ferries back and forth on bus No. 0917: it doesn’t take long for them to start taking their seat belts off, and it’s hard for him to see them over the new 24-inch seats.

He said things can be improved by making belt usage a rule and getting around the seat issue, possibly by setting up cameras with a monitor up front that drivers can use to keep an eye on the kids.

“What if a child got choked? I’d never know it” with the new seats, Caudle said.

The U.S. Department of Transportation announced new bus requirements Wednesday that make lap and shoulder belts mandatory on new buses weighing 5 tons or less. Those smaller buses already have lap belts, but the lap-shoulder combination is safer.

There is no seat belt requirement for larger buses, but buses of all sizes will be required to raise seat backs to 24 inches, up from the previous minimum of 20 inches. The design change is supposed to keep older, heavier students from being thrown over the seats in a collision.

National Association for Pupil Transportation executive director Mike Martin said he’s heard concerns over the higher seat backs before. He said drivers are usually concerned about discipline problems when kids realize they can’t be seen.

However, there’s solid research that the higher backs increase safety and complaints usually fade off as drivers are trained to work around it, he said.

“It’s a bit of a double-edged sword. The drivers and the kids need to be sort of retrained,” Martin said. “Student behavior is always a driver’s biggest challenge regardless of the seat height.”