November 24, 2005

What if?

by Chris Feeney

What if buckling up isnít always the wisest thing to do? Iím a firm believer that seatbelts save lives. As a volunteer fireman, Iíve been to numerous car crashes where the use of a safety belt would have likely saved a life or prevented serious injuries.

But recently Governor Matt Blunt has recommended placing lap/shoulder belts on school buses. Friends on the Missouri Association for Pupil Transportation, folks familiar with buses and school transportation issues, shared some interesting facts with me to make me disagree with the governor, a rarity for me.

Safety statistics show that seatbelts on buses would likely address just over a half of one percent of fatalities and injuries in school bus accidents. More than 99 percent of the harm to occupants occur outside of the bus.

There are concerns that the changes may actually do more harm than good. Concerns have arisen that seats are made more rigid to accommodate the seatbelts, meaning they cause more harm than good in accidents, as riders are hurt by the seats.

The seatbelts themselves can be used to cause damage as well. The metal buckles and straps are easily turned into a weapon that can be turned on one rider by another.

Opponents of the governorís plan also point to financial problems created by the proposal. Installing seatbelts on buses will reduce the bus capacity by 25- to 33-percent. That inadvertently would cause transportation costs to skyrocket, as more buses and more bus drivers would be required by every school system.

If the money isnít there, which right now itís not, then school districts will be forced to reduce transportation service to offset the lost seating capacity. Districts that canít afford more buses will in essence, be putting the school children in a much more dangerous environment. According to the group a child is eight times more likely to be hurt or killed in a private automobile crash than in a school bus accident.

While safety is the key here, the bottom line also must be considered. Transportation experts have estimated that it will cost between $7,000 to $10,000 per bus to install the safety belts. With approximately 10,000 full-size buses in service in Missouri, that means transportation costs will be more than $80 million higher than normally spent on new buses. If service is not reduced, the loss of seating generated by the seatbelt installations would mean the state is going to need 2,500 more buses. At roughly $60,000 per unit, thatís another $172 million in transportation costs.

If it could be proven that spending $250 million would make school buses safer, Iím sure taxpayers would be happy to foot the bill. But before we sign the check, letís make sure weíre not just throwing money out there because it sounds like the thing to do.

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