Kids safe without belts on buses

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DEAR MS. SUN SPOTS: I read your column daily and get so much information for which I’m very thankful.

Something has been bothering me for a number of years, and I hope you have the answer.

Why don’t our school buses have safety belts? These children are our future and need protecting on their way to and from school. There are seat belt laws in all states, and police pull over those not belted.

Thank you in advance. — Prets (Sun Spots hope she read your handwriting correctly), Auburn

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ANSWER: You are not alone in wondering. Seat belts seem like a no-brainer, and many people have asked this question or fought to add them.

There are, of course, financial reasons. Separate studies by the NHTSA and the University of Alabama concluded that installing seat belts would add anywhere from $8,000 to $15,000 to the cost of a new bus. Seat belts would also reduce capacity, requiring more buses.

The same studies also concluded, however, that adding those belts would have very little impact on safety.

Instead of seat belts, school buses use “compartmentalization.” Bus seats are packed closely together; they’re spaced tightly and covered with 4-inch-thick foam to form a protective bubble. So in a crash the child will go against the seat, and that will absorb most of the impact. The seats are also designed to keep the child from flying out of the bus.

School buses also have a low center of gravity, making them safer in accidents than a regular passenger vehicle. (Federal law requires buses under 10,000 pounds, used to transport smaller groups of children or those with disabilities, to have seat belts.)

The National Education Association website listed concerns from bus drivers:

* Students can and do use the heavy belt buckles as weapons, injuring other riders.

* It is next to impossible to make sure that all students keep their belts properly fastened, so that they are not injured by the belts in an accident.

(Sun Spots wonders how they even design seats with belts to accommodate the children, who vary greatly in size, from a tiny kindergartner to a giant high-school football player.)

* If a bus has to be evacuated in an emergency, such as a fire, panicked or disoriented students might be trapped by their belts.

School buses are already incredibly safe. From a 2010 post on NBC News’ website: 

“About 440,000 public school buses carry 24 million children more than 4.3 billion miles a year, but only about six children die each year in bus accidents, according to annual statistics compiled the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. About 800 children, by contrast, die every year walking, biking or being driven to school in cars or other passenger vehicles, said Ron Medford, the agency’s deputy director.”

A handful of states appear to have passed laws adding seat belts to school buses, although a couple of them don’t require compliance unless the funding is available, which it usually isn’t. No federal legislation is pending that Sun Spots knows of, or thinks likely.

DEAR SUN SPOTS: My sister has run the Coat Room for the past 17 years or so and provides much-needed outer wear with no questions, forms to fill out or money, and I help her out. 

On Dec. 17 Secret Santa came to Oxford Hills and visited to spread some holiday cheer, handing out $100 bills to some of the lucky few who happened to be in the Coat Room at the time. It was like getting a million dollars for some of the most needy.

My sister and I were able to “pay it forward” and help additional families who needed a helping hand. We are all very grateful for this extraordinary gesture and wanted to thank the Secret Santa who visited us here in Oxford Hills.

Your column is read by just about everyone I know and seemed to be the best chance of letting “Santa” know how very grateful we all are. — Robert via email

This column is for you, our readers. It is for your questions and comments. There are only two rules: You must write to the column and sign your name (we won’t use it if you ask us not to). Please include your phone number. Letters will not be returned or answered by mail, and telephone calls will not be accepted. Your letters will appear as quickly as space allows. Address them to Sun Spots, P.O. Box 4400, Lewiston, ME 04243-4400. Inquiries can also be emailed to sunspots@sunjournal.com.

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