Seatbelts not required on most Washington school buses



Posted on January 27, 2014 at 2:40 PM

Updated Thursday, Jan 30 at 8:25 PM

Should local school buses have seat belts?

QUINCY, Wash. -- Surveillance video released to KREM 2 News showed what happened inside a school bus that flipped over and crashed with 36 kids on board on Highway 28 south of Quincy in 2012.

The bus video is too graphic to show because none of the kids were wearing seatbelts.  In light of the video, however, KREM 2 News investigated why school buses lack the one thing that could make them safer in a crash.

Daniel Ramos, a Quincy High School sophomore at the time, described what the bus crash was like on March 12, 2012.  He said he took his normal seat near the back among the dozens of students, aged five to 18.  The driver began his normal path northbound along Highway 28.

“All of a sudden, I feel the bus go real bumpy,” said Ramos.

The right tires of the bus had rolled off the pavement onto the shoulder.

“I was looking out the window and I could actually see the road getting closer and closer and closer and then it just started tumbling and tumbling,” Ramos recalled.

Photos of the crash showed students flying out of their seats as the bus flipped onto its left side, then over onto its right down a short embankment.

“I was confused when I got up.”

Ramos kicked open an emergency hatch and jumped out.

“When we got out, everyone [was] just bloody and just in shock.”

The wreck fractured Ramos’ wrist.

“I can't really put any weight on it or else it just starts hurting and I can't really do much with it after that.”

Authorities said 36 of the 39 students onboard were hurt in the 2012 crash.  Injuries included neck and back pains, concussions, serious cuts and head trauma. 

“We were all saying, ‘this is just crazy,’” said Ramos.

Washington State Patrol later determined the bus driver appeared fatigued and sleepy and her eyes closed for five seconds before the crash.

The bus driver remained secured in her seat during the crash. She was the only person on the bus wearing a seatbelt.

The driver's seat belt is the only available restraint on most of Washington State's 10,500 school buses, with the exception of buses carrying special needs students.

Ramos’ mother, Nati Dean, believes the exception should be the rule.

“We first use our seatbelts in the car, why can’t the kids have the seatbelts on the bus,” asked Dean.” 

Washington State’s Director of Student Transportation Allan Jones said the issue has been around since the 1970's.

“People are moving towards supporting seat belts on school busses because that's what the parents want,” said Jones.

In 2011, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration denied a petition by nearly two dozen organizations asking for a federal mandate of the installation of lap-shoulder belts on all school buses.  The agency stated it did not find a big enough safety problem to warrant a nationwide requirement.  Officials cited a 2002 report by the National Academy of Sciences, which found that less than one percent of the 815 school-age children killed each year in motor vehicle crashes during the school day, were passengers in school buses.  Students had a greater chance of getting killed getting on and off the bus or driving to school, according to the report.

“Compartmentalization is what is being provided to students for safety,” said Jones.

Compartmentalization consists of closely spaced padded seats that absorb energy, according to Jones.  He added that manufacturers build school busses to special construction standards.

A NHTSA report found most children killed inside school buses are generally seated in an area where an object hit the vehicle.  According to the report, "in such circumstances seat belts will not be effective in preventing the fatality."
The agency, however, did acknowledge lap-shoulder belts would be most effective in rollover crashes.  A crash test video provided to KREM 2 News by a safety systems testing facility in Indiana showed the difference between belted children and children who were unrestrained.  The result from the example of unrestrained passengers mirrored what was seen on the crash video from the 2012 Quincy crash.

National Education Association officials said there are arguments against the use of seat belts on school buses.  Children could sit or hang trapped in their seats in emergencies such as a fire, said officials.  There were also fears children could use heavy belt buckles as weapons, and officials said it would be difficult to make sure all students keep their belt properly fastened.
One of the biggest obstacles is the price tag. Jones said it would cost districts an extra $10,000-$15,000 to order one new school bus with seat belts.

He also said buses in Washington have an outstanding safety record, collectively traveling the distance to the moon and back every school day.

“In a perfect world, I would like to see it because I think it would get more kids on buses and having the students on buses is safer than having them being transported in passenger vehicles,” said Jones.

The crash has made Ramos anxious about riding in any vehicle.

“I can't help but hold on to that little handle by the car just in case something happens because it's just, I'm always paranoid,” Ramos explained.  “I'm always paranoid in the car.” 

The district superintendent told KREM 2 News he could not say much about the crash because of pending lawsuits.

Several bills proposed in the state legislature over the years requiring seat belts on school buses have failed.

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