To Buckle or Not to Buckle: Debate Over Seat Belts on Buses Heats Up

"Click It or Ticket" -- so goes one of America's most successful enforcement campaigns for seat belt laws. But the death earlier this year of a Connecticut teenager has many wondering why the slogan hasn't applied to children on school buses.

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This week, the debate heated up.

"We need to do the right thing for our children," said Connecticut Gov. M. Jodi Rell in a statement this week, promising to allocate funds toward school bus replacements. "When the state orders new buses, they must come equipped with seat belts."

The pressure to enforce stricter seat belt laws could go beyond school buses. Earlier today, a fatal accident involving a commercial bus in Phoenix, Arizona killed six passengers and injured at least 15. It was not clear if the bus had seat belts, as some smaller vehicles do.

All 50 states, with the exception of New Hampshire, have an adult safety belt law, but only six states have passed a bill requiring seat belts in school buses.

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, school buses are roughly seven times safer than passenger cars or light trucks. Despite that statistic, advocates for legislation promoting seat belts on buses say the lack of a law is counterintuitive.

"Every day, we put our children on a school bus, and the school bus drivers, they have seat belts," Connecticut State Rep. Tony Guerrera told ABC News. "You and I travel to work in vehicles that have seat belts and airbags. But for some reason, when it comes to the children, we don't have a mechanism in place that would prevent a tragedy like this from happening."

Guerrera, the Democratic co-chairman of the Transportation Committee, is author of a bill that would mandate the installation of lap and shoulder seat belts, also called a three-point safety restraint system, in school buses by January 2011. The committee is expected to vote on the bill next week. If it passes, the legislation likely will be introduced in the general assembly by April.

The Seat Belt Debate

New York was the first state to pass a seat belt law for school buses, followed by New Jersey, California, Florida, Texas and Louisiana. While those six states have a law in place, not all of the states require lap and shoulder belts and others have not been enforced due to insufficient funding.

Fueled by grassroots coalitions, typically 20 to 30 states take up the issue each year, some localities getting further along in the process than others. Select school districts across the country have choosen to install seat belts without a statewide mandate.

The Buckle-Up Generation

According to the National Association of Pupil Transportation, the country's largest school bus industry association, outfitting buses with belts costs $7,000 to $11,000 per bus. Opponents of a seat belt law point to such additional costs and cite concerns about liability and enforcement.

"We're concerned about who will be responsible for ensuring that the children put the belts on," Connecticut School Transportation Association executive director Bill Moore told ABC News. "If that's the driver, we believe that's going to provide problems for children outside of the school bus."

Moore explained that if a driver has to walk the aisle to ensure students are buckled up, he or she is required to turn off the bus, which deactivates the red flashing warning lights and, therefore, causes a safety hazard for neighboring cars or pedestrians. He added that seat belts can be dangerous in an evacuation situation where children may be trapped and left unable to get out of the vehicle.

"We're concerned that if children are wearing seat belts, not all of them will get out of that vehicle," Moore said. "If the bus should flop over and end up on its side, you've got children hanging from those seat belts.

"Is the driver and the carrier going to be liable for injuries received whether or not children are wearing seat belts or if they're not wearing them properly?" Moore asked. "We've looked into all of the studies and all of the most recent studies clearly indicate that the school bus as its currently designed and manufactured are safe."

School buses use an approach called "compartmentalization" to protect its passengers. Instead of relying on seat belts, well-padded and energy absorbing seats are designed to protect the riders. The approach is to "package children like eggs," according to The School Bus Information Center.

Advocates for a bill say safety is tantamount and buckling up is the only way to protect riders. The company Safeguard, a division of IMMI, which has specialized in child passenger protection for nearly three decades, is leading the way in manufacturing a seating system with integrated lap and shoulder belts.

"NHTSA says the introduction of lap and shoulder belts reduces injuries by about 45 percent," said IMMI spokesperson James Johnson. "We're talking about an opportunity to really reduce injuries and help children get to school safely."

Safeguard's latest seat belt initiative is equipping all new Greyhound buses with lap- and shoulder-belted seats. Johnson said the recent integration of this seating system in motor-coaches is evidence of a massive movement toward lap and shoulder belts made voluntarily, often with no legislation and no requirements.

"School buses across the country voluntarily are adopting this system -- Virginia, Illinois, Tennessee, Nebraska, Oregon, Washington -- all voluntarily including lap and shoulder belts on new buses," said Johnson.

But the debate is not only about whether to have seat belts in school buses, but also what kind of safety belt is required and who is responsible for enforcement.

In October 2008, the Transportation Department announced that shoulder and lap belts would be required for children riding on school buses weighing less than 10,000 pounds -- only 20 percent of U.S. school buses -- but the government has yet to mandate seat belts for larger buses.

While NHTSA, the agency that defines standards for pupil transportation and safety, acknowledged that seat belts on larger buses could help to lower the risk of head and neck injuries in a perilous accident, the organization maintains that large school buses are among the safest forms of transportation.

NHTSA also requires that all school buses made after Oct. 2011 have 24-inch seat backs, four inches higher than most standard seats.

What's Next for Connecticut?

The deadly school bus accident in January, which killed 16-year old Vikas Parikh of Rocky Hill, Conn., paved the way for the governor's announcement this week that she will place $2 million on the next state bond commission agenda to purchase nearly 40 new school bus replacements.

"We have a tremendous opportunity to, perhaps, save a life and prevent another family from suffering the devastating loss of a loved one," the governor said in a paper statement.

A recent Quinnipiac University poll found that voters overwhelmingly support a seat belt law.

"Connecticut voters support the proposed legislation by 73 to 20 percent," Douglas Schwartz, director of the Quinnipiac University Poll, told ABC News. "The support was really across the board, men, women all regions of the state, all party groups supported this legislation."

But the trade association COSTA, comprised of virtually all of the major pupil transportation carriers in the state, said research proves seat belts are not necessary.

"All the studies recognize the value of the inherent safety in a school bus," said Moore. "The overall record of the student transportation industry not only in Connecticut, but nationwide is one of remarkable safety."

From 1994 through 2005, there were about 26 deaths per year involving school buses, including drivers, adult passengers, school kids and pedestrians, reported NHTSA. About six of those deaths were school-age children riding on buses.

When contacted by ABC News, NHTSA declined to comment, saying that despite research the organization has conducted on seat belts in buses, it does not comment on state issues.

But Guerrera insisted legislation is the only way to protect the young riders.

"That's where we need to be proactive rather than reactive," he said. "We don't want to see another tragedy occur and then come back and say maybe we should have passed this bill."