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The Journal Gazette

  • Mike Moore | The Journal Gazette David Myers, director of transportation for East Allen County Schools, gets help from Prince Chapman Academy students to demonstrate the newly implemented seat belt restraints installed on one of the district's buses.

Sunday, August 05, 2018 1:00 am

Schools start buckling up

More area districts add lap, shoulder seat belts on buses to enhance safety

ASHLEY SLOBODA | The Journal Gazette

First day of school

Aug. 13 – East Allen County Schools

Aug. 14 – Fort Wayne Community Schools

Aug. 15 – Northwest Allen County and Southwest Allen County schools

When two people died this spring in a school bus crash in New Jersey – where seat belts are required on such vehicles – transportation directors here thought of the survivors.

There wasn't any doubt the restraints saved lives that day, said Steve Lake, transportation director for Southwest Allen County Schools.

Indiana isn't among the six states that mandate school bus seat belts, but Allen County public school districts are beginning to ensure students buckle up. 

“While school buses are designed to keep students safe in the event of a crash, the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration now supports the addition of lap-shoulder belts on school buses,” said Krista Stockman, Fort Wayne Community Schools spokeswoman. “Adding seat belts gives us an opportunity to enhance an already safe means of transportation.”

The safety administration reports students are about 70 times more likely to get to school safely when riding in a bus instead of a car. Nationwide, only four to six school-age children annually die on school vehicles – less than 1 percent of all traffic fatalities.

Multiple factors contribute to school bus safety, including their design, the agency reports.

Along with such features as flashing red lights and stop-sign arms, school buses use compartmentalization, a passive occupant protection system that has strong, closely spaced seats with energy-absorbing seat backs. The National Transportation Safety Board likened it to eggs being protected by a carton.

But it isn't foolproof.

For compartmentalization to be effective, students must sit up and face forward. Other positions – such as twisting backward – puts children's safety at risk, which they don't always understand, said John Miller, chief operations officer for Northwest Allen County Schools.

Between retrofitting and buying new buses with seat belts, Northwest Allen will have 33 buses – or 55 percent of its on-the-road fleet – equipped with restraints this fall, he said.

“This will add to the safety factor by making them sit appropriately,” Miller said, adding seat belts are especially useful in rollover or side-impact crashes.

Like Northwest Allen, other Allen County school districts are phasing in seat belts.

When the 2018-19 year starts, 26 of the 250 regular school buses Fort Wayne Community has will include the seat belts, along with three activity buses. 

Southwest Allen will have eight with seat belts, and East Allen County Schools should have four by Thanksgiving. 

Passenger lap and shoulder belts have been available on school buses since 2002, but only California, Florida, Louisiana, New Jersey, New York and Texas require them, according to the National Safety Council.

Their popularity in Indiana has increased in the last five years, said Adam Baker, Indiana Department of Education press secretary.

Because retrofitting buses can cost upward of $15,000 per bus, Baker said, it's often cheaper for districts to replace buses with those that come with seat belts. The state recommends schools choose the lap-shoulder belts, not the lap belts, he said.

While some resistance from students is expected, Allen County officials said they don't foresee problems with compliance because children are used to wearing seat belts in their parents' vehicles. Elementary school bus riders often look for seat belts, Lake said.

A visit to DeKalb Central United School District – which began using five buses with seat belts last academic year – put Miller more at ease regarding the student piece, he said.

DeKalb encountered little resistance from students, Transportation Director Renee Dawson said, noting a call to parents usually resolved any issue.

“I wish we could put seat belts in all of ours tomorrow,” she said.

Along with keeping students seated, the restraints have helped quash behavioral problems before they start, and drivers can pay closer attention to the road, Dawson said.

“It's helping us retain drivers,” she said.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration intends to study the indirect effects of school bus seat belts. School officials have said effects include improved discipline, increased driver satisfaction and decreased driver distraction, according to a March 30 request for proposals. The solicitation had not been awarded as of July 26.

A.J. Blackford will drive East Allen's first route with seat belts, which were installed on bus No. 117. He's nervous about the change but wants children to be safe. He expects any initial trouble will become easier with time.

Children at registration climbed aboard the bus and sat three to a seat, the capacity for elementary students. They quickly adapted to the seat belts under the supervision of David Myers, East Allen transportation director.

“They already knew how to adjust everything,” he said.

asloboda@jg.net