NORWAY – The owner of the Kennebunk dealership that sold the school bus involved in Wednesday’s fatal accident in Sumner said Thursday that the bus appeared to do just what it was designed to do – save children from serious injury.

“Based on what I’m hearing, I think it did do its job. Definitely,” said George Cressey, second-generation owner of W.C. Cressey & Son, the dealer that sells 150 to 170 Thomas Built buses to school districts across Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont each year.

The investigation into the fatal crash that killed 16-year-old Amy Cerrato is continuing today, according to State Trooper Corey Smith, who said it will take up to a month to complete.

Cerrato was killed Wednesday morning when the SUV she was driving to Buckfield Junior-Senior High School crashed head-on into the SAD 39 school bus carrying 31 elementary school children and their driver. Six of the students were taken to the Central Maine Medical Center in Lewiston, where they were treated for minor injuries and released.

Cerrato was wearing a seat belt, Smith said. The children were not.

“In a frontal crash, those kids are protected by compartmentalization,” Cressey said of the bus design that allows the chassis of the bus to move off its frame so that an occupant’s body moves forward, hitting the heavily padded seat in front. In this case, the bus reportedly was pushed a foot off its chassis.

Officials say this and other design protections that have been implemented in school buses since the mid-1970s have reduced significant injuries and hemmed in approval of legislation to mandate seat belts in school buses.

“Almost every session we have a bill proposing to put seat belts on school buses …,” said state education specialist Harvey Boatman. The issue is somewhat a matter of economics, he said. Seat belts reduce the space available for students on each seat and in the bus by about 20 percent. It would significantly reduce the number of kids a bus could transport, he said.

Fifty percent of students across the country ride school buses, Boatman said. “We lose about seven (students) a year on average,” he said of school bus fatalities. In comparison, he said, more than 800 students are killed each year in accidents related to other modes of transportation to school.

Boatman said the buses are built with heavy reinforcement in the ribs and side panels and the seats are padded with foam. Federal regulations mandate the safety designs in buses and Maine tacks on some optional federal guidelines in state school buses.

SAD 17 Superintendent Mark Eastman, who oversees the second-largest school bus fleet in the state, said the debate over seat belts in school buses is long-standing, but the latest research seems to bear out that the design of buses provides sufficient protection for children.

“The children are contained in their little pods. … Yesterday it seems to me you had a huge, compartmentalized egg crate,” he said of the protection for the students when the bus moved off its chassis.

The National Coalition for Bus Safety disagrees that compartmentalization provides enough safety for children on school buses.

“We all know despite the padding and compartmentalization, you get a broken egg in the crate once in a while,” said Alan Ross, president of the Connecticut-based coalition.

Ross said he believes his organization is making progress toward mandating seat belts. A handful of states now require seat belts on school buses.

“The laws of physics aren’t suspended because they paint the bus yellow and it’s big,” Ross said. “It’s a horrible situation. And if you don’t believe seat belts are necessary then I invite you to drive home without a seat belt.”


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