Life-saving or a safety hazard? Avon Lake schools’ experiment with seat-belts on buses yielded unexpected results | #schoolsaftey

AVON LAKE, Ohio – When Avon Lake City Schools updated its school bus fleet with two new buses equipped with seat belts for the 2019-2020 school year, transportation director Sue Cole approached the pilot program with an open mind.

She hoped to find that the benefits of students buckling up on school buses outweighed the inconveniences. But it quickly became clear that the belts created new logistical and safety challenges that eventually deterred the district from going all-in on seat belts — unless manufacturers rethink how buses and the devices are designed.

School bus safety – and seat belts, particularly – have been top of mind in Ohio in recent weeks, after a Clark County school bus carrying 52 students to their first day of class was hit by a minivan, killing one student and injuring 23 others. The tragedy prompted Gov. Mike DeWine to assemble a 15-member task force to find ways for the state to improve bus safety, including the possibility of requiring seat belts on all public-school buses. And U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown followed with the introduction of the School Bus Safety Act, which would mandate seat belts, among other safety features, on school buses throughout the country.

As the issue gains momentum and becomes the subject of debate among national transportation organizations, local school districts and citizen advocacy groups, and The Plain Dealer took a closer look at the pilot program in Avon Lake, to learn whether the seat belts improved safety and in what ways they fell short.

“Safety is the most important thing for us. It’s what we’re all about,” Cole told in an interview this week. “But unfortunately, what we found was that moving forward with getting more buses with seat belts wasn’t the safest choice. They interfered with the procedures drivers needed to do at their bus stops, and it became a safety issue in our eyes.”

Glitches in a well-intentioned program

Cole described numerous incidents during the district’s year-long pilot program when the seat belts malfunctioned or proved to be more of a hazard than a safety feature.

In one case, Cole said, a student’s backpack zipper got caught in the seat belt when she tried to get off the bus at her stop. She was unable to free her backpack without help from the bus driver, who had to walk to the back of the bus, while it was parked on a busy street.

“The driver had to break the zipper and the seat belt to do it,” Cole said. “In that instance, the seat belt created a safety hazard. Drivers aren’t supposed to leave their seats, but what was she supposed to do? She had to get her out.”

The transportation department was also contacted by the parent of a kindergarten student whose neck was becoming red and irritated because of the seat belts. Cole said in that case, the driver moved the seat belt as much as she could, but it was still cutting across the child’s neck – in itself, a safety issue in the event of a crash.

But the biggest obstacle the district ran into was space. On the buses with seat belts, the space between seat backs is 2 inches less than on the regular buses, and the seat-bottom depth is decreased by 1 inch. In other words, shallower seats with significantly less leg room.

Originally, one of the seat-belted buses was used for transporting high school students to vocational school. But the students were uncomfortable, with their knees hitting the backs of the seats directly in front of them. The bus was eventually swapped for one without seat belts.

Instead, Cole said, the district decided to use the seat-belt buses for out-of-town trips, when the risk of rollover crashes is far greater than when driving on local streets. But again, older children and teens found the seats to be cramped, so that idea went by the wayside, too.

The seat design also created another problem. The belt buckles were separated by only about 12 inches. That meant only the youngest, smallest students could fit comfortably while buckled into the three spots in each seat. Older students would end up using their seat’s middle buckle instead, which would take up two of the seat’s three spots. That wouldn’t leave enough room for a second student to do the same, which meant only one kid would sit in each seat, though there were seat belts for three.

“They started to complain that they had to sit on their buckle, which was uncomfortable. There’s no way to move the center hook, so the larger kids started pushing the buckles down into their seats,” Cole said. “The next morning, the drivers would do their pre-trip checks and would have to go through and pull every single one of them out of the seats, which is not a quick or easy process.”

Eventually, the district concluded that the pilot program was unsustainable and that retiring buses would not be replaced with models with seat belts. The two pilot buses are still in service. Students may choose to wear the belts while riding, though it’s not enforced by the drivers.

Although many seat belt advocates say school districts refuse to invest in buses equipped with the safety feature because those models are more expensive, Cole said that was simply not the case for Avon Lake.

“This had nothing to do with the cost,” Cole said. “Even though it is costly when you have to replace seat belts, that wouldn’t have turned us away from getting more seat belt buses if we found that they increased kids’ safety. Unfortunately, that’s not what we found.”

Experts are divided over whether to buckle up

Avon Lake School District’s decision not to put seat belts in its larger buses complies with the recommendations from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

While the NHTSA requires seat belts on school buses weighing less than 10,000 pounds, the agency concluded that larger, heavier school buses provide the best crash protection through compartmentalization. That’s the concept that passengers are protected by energy-absorbing seat backs and confined spaces.

And overall, statistics seem to support that theory. According to the Ohio State Highway Patrol, from 2018 through July 26, 2023, there were 6,089 total motor vehicle crashes involving school buses in Ohio. Seven of those crashes were fatal, killing seven people and injuring 1,847 others. Before the Aug. 22 Clark County crash that killed 11-year-old Aiden Clark, the most recent fatal school bus crash in Ohio occurred in 2010.

Nationwide, nearly 500,000 school buses carry more than 25 million students to and from school activities each day, according to the National Transportation Safety Board. Its research found that children are safer traveling on school buses than in any other vehicle, with 1,009 fatal school transportation related crashes from 2011-2020. Most people killed in those crashes were either pedestrians or riding in another vehicle.

However, the NTSB has concluded that compartmentalization alone is not enough to prevent all injuries and that, in some cases, the use of seat belts instead could have saved children’s lives.

In late 2022, the NTSB renewed its 2018 recommendation that states require seat belts on all new, large school buses. (The Ohio PTA issued a similar statement earlier the same year.)

Kristin Poland, NTSB deputy director of the Office of Highway Safety, even testified in 2019 that compartmentalization doesn’t provide sufficient protection in side-impact collisions and rollovers, such as in the case of a 2016 school bus crash in Chatanooga, Tenn., that killed six students. She recommended safety enhancements to address the issue.

“The Chattanooga school bus passengers were at risk due to the precrash vehicle motions that threw them from their seating compartments prior to the bus striking the utility pole,” Poland said in her testimony. “This rendered compartmentalization ineffective during the rollover sequence.”

The Chatanooga crash was the tipping point that compelled advocate Rudy Breglia, of Avon Lake, to start the School Bus Safety Alliance.

“I’ve heard many times that school buses are the safest form of transportation, but you have children riding them, who are dying and being injured, and you have a basic safety tool — seat belts — that will solve that problem,” Breglia said. “Can someone be injured if they have a seat belt on? Yes — but they can survive and not be ejected, like Aiden Clark, who, if he had a seat belt, very possibly would be alive today.”

Describing compartmentalization as a “crude and violent means of protection” that he hopes gets phased out by Sen. Brown’s new bill, Breglia praised the initiatives by both Brown and DeWine.

“I hope to see the bill have bipartisan support, allowing it to get through the senate and the house of representatives quickly, and that the funding is provided for the grant program to help school districts deal with the safety modifications in the bill itself,” Breglia said. “All the essentials – including safety improvements, beyond seat belts — are there. This is exactly what needs to happen, and I’m enormously pleased.”

Cole, of the Avon Lake district, is also happy that the issue has grasped the attention of both public officials. She hopes the scrutiny and research might help find solutions to the design problems that her district’s pilot program revealed.

“I just hope that they talk to drivers who can give them a true picture of what it’s like, and that they find ways to improve the seat belts,” Cole said. “We hope that they are able to solve some of the issues so the district can revisit this in the future.”

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