How safe are our buses?

Becky Campbell • Sep 22, 2012 at 9:37 PM

The rollover school bus crash last week that injured 26 David Crockett High School students could spur the Washington County Board of Education to revisit the issue of seat belts on school buses — something parents and others are now asking about.

“I think our board will at least take a look at the scenario,” said Director of Schools Ron Dykes.

But he said the real push for seat belts on school buses needs to start at the state level with legislators.

“They don’t require it,” he said.

It’s something a retired EMS paramedic has pushed for in recent years, but he said his arguments fell on deaf ears.

Jim “Doc” Jones said Friday he warned the Washington County Commission and school board a couple of years ago about the dangers of not requiring seat belts for school children.

“My phone started ringing off the hook,” Thursday afternoon, Jones said. “I went ballistic.”

He was referring to the Thursday afternoon crash on Mt. Wesley Road when the school bus driver, Brenda K. Gray, 54, Jonesborough, rounded a curve and went into the oncoming lane, off the left side and overcorrected. The bus veered back to the right and went off the road again. It turned over and rolled three times, according to preliminary reports.

The crash sent 26 students and the driver to area hospitals. Twelve were admitted that night at Johnson City Medical Center. By midday Saturday, only six students remained hospitalized.

Jones said he’s been told that children would be in more danger if they couldn’t get out of the seat belt in the event of a crash.

“We’re educating kids to be doctors and lawyers and they can’t push one button,” he said. “School buses will wreck. It’s a fact. The amount of force the body will endure is figured out by the speed and (the rider’s) weight.”

As a paramedic, Jones said he responded to numerous bus wrecks and there was always some type of injury.

Standard school buses, according to the National Transportation Safety Board, are designed to absorb impacts differently than passenger cars. In fact, a statement on the NTSB website says “school buses are one of the safest forms of transportation in the United States.”

Tell that to the 42 students who were on Bus 88 Thursday.

And while seat belts have been required on passenger cars since 1968, school buses don’t have the same regulation.

The NTSB depends on the concept of “compartmentalization,” to provide crash protection “by a protective envelope consisting of strong, closely-spaced seats that have energy-absorbing seat backs,” the website states. But that only seems to apply when a bus stays upright.

Apparently the only person on a regular-size school bus required to wear a seat belt is the driver. Gray, who was driving the bus that crashed in Washington County, was transported to the hospital after the crash, but it was apparently due to chest pains and not injuries from the crash.

The bottom line regarding seat belts on school buses appears to be the cost involved.

Dykes said the school board seriously looked at installing seat belts a few years ago but Tennessee does not require belts on buses based on bus safety history and the compartmentalization design.

“At that time it came down to a funding issue and the simple fact that fatalities and bus wrecks were extremely rare and students were well-protected in them. When you did the math it was going to be a multimillion dollar project to actually equip all of our buses with seat belts and we’re always under funding constraints. It would be wonderful to have seat belts on buses,” he said.

Dykes said the configuration of seat belt mechanisms would reconfigure the number of students allowed on each vehicle and add $15,000 to $20,000 to the price of a bus, which already cost about $70,000 each.

“With the number of seats you lost, I think it forced you to, for every five buses, I think you had to buy a new bus to make up for that difference in seat loss. We’ve always chosen to be proactive when it comes to safety. The issue came up at a board meeting and it was discussed in some detail,” Dykes said.

Jones said he isn’t suggesting buses be retrofitted with seat belts, just that the school board purchase new school buses with seat belts already installed. He also said he’s seen a school bus bench configured to allow three students to sit there and wear a seat belt.

At this point, Dykes said he has not heard from parents on the issue. But that isn’t the case for the Johnson City Press. The newspaper has received numerous comments and calls from people asking why buses don’t have seat belts and that they are in favor of it.

Press Staff Writer Madison Mathews contributed to this report.

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