- The Washington Times - Monday, July 16, 2007

Federal officials are asking questions about school bus safety and whether requiring seat belts on buses would save students from injury or death.

In the absence of federal requirements of seat belts on buses, states “have gone out and decided we’re not waiting for the federal government; we’re making this decision for ourselves,” the head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) told a gathering of officials last week.

“The reason we put this roundtable together … is to hear from the states more than anyone else,” said NHTSA administrator Nicole Nason. “Did [seat belt requirements] work in your state or not? What challenges did you find, and were you able to overcome them?”

One problem was highlighted by a video showing the effect of crashes with test dummies not wearing seat belt, with lap belts only and with lap-and-shoulder belts.

Students who were harnessed by only a lap belt received higher rates of injuries because of a “jackknife effect” an NHTSA study found, in which children’s heads strike the seat in front of them, and then snap backward.

A combination lap-and-shoulder system seemed to work best in the crash tests, the study found: “Lap and shoulder belts keep the crash dummies secure in the new seat, which prevents impact with the seat in front of them.”

The NHSTA is also examining other school bus safety factors.

“We know that there are states that are saying that seats are not high enough. We saw the video footage of the older kids in a crash test who simply go right over the top of the standard seat,” Mrs. Nason said. “We had questions concerning the thickness of the padding.”

The NHTSA’s National Center for Statistics and Analysis found that since 1995, of more than 400,000 fatal traffic crashes, about 1,300 were related to school transportation.

Mrs. Nason said the agency will propose new federal rules this fall.

“We know that there are places that we can make improvements right now [without requiring seat belts on buses], and while we are doing that, we wanted to open up the discussion to seat belts,” she said. “Should that be part of our rule-making? And if it should, should we at least consider flexibility for the states?”