Good advice: Don’t rush school bus seat bills just yet

Student safety is of the utmost importance for Michigan families, and it should be for school districts as well.

Lawmakers in the state House have introduced several bills that would require shoulder belts in all new school buses. Yet studies related to the effectiveness of seat belts on buses are mixed.

The jury is still out on whether safety on school buses would be enhanced by seat belts. In fact, some studies indicate school bus seat belts could be dangerous to young passengers.

The bills would also require local school districts to pay for installation of seat belts. This would increase the cost of each bus by an estimated $7,000 to $9,000 and represent an unfunded mandate – when the state passes a law but places the financial burden on local governments.

Because of the costs and questions on the effectiveness of the seat belts, more research is merited before moving on these bills.

School buses are safe vehicles. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration concluded in a 2002 study that “American students are nearly eight times safer riding in a school bus than with their own parents and guardians in cars.”

Similarly, the report said lap belts have little, if any, benefit in reducing serious injuries and fatalities in severe frontal crashes. It also indicated lap belts could actually increase the number of serious neck and abdominal injuries.

NHTSA reinforced its position in 2011 when it denied a petition from the Center for Auto Safety and 21 others asking the agency to mandate the installation of three-point seat belts in all school buses.

Statistics support NHTSA’s conclusions.

According to recent figures, the National Safety Council reports the school bus accident rate is 0.01 per 100 million miles traveled, compared to 0.04 for trains, 0.06 for commercial aviation and 0.96 for other passenger vehicles.

In Michigan over the past five years, eight people have died in school bus related accidents. Seven were killed in vehicles that collided with a bus.

However, the student passenger death did not involve a crash. A Detroit girl in 2011 was hanging outside a bus window and was killed when she was struck by a tree limb.

There is a federal rule mandating all new small school buses – those weighing less than 10,000 pounds – have lap-shoulder belts rather than just lap belts. But only six states require some type of restraint on all new large buses.

State Rep. Robert Kosowski, D-Westland, the main sponsor of the bills, is keeping an open mind.

“I’d like to get a hearing on this,” he says. “If there’s enough evidence to show they’re not needed, I’ll understand and I will back off of this pursuit.”

More research is required to determine if seat belts improve student safety on large buses before lawmakers place another cost burden on school districts.