Would Putting Seatbelts on School Buses Save Children’s Lives?

Every day, nearly half a million school buses hit the road.

January 30, 2015, 11:08 AM

— -- Every day, nearly half a million school buses hit the road – taking 25 million children to school. And while many parents think their children are in safe hands, tragedy can strike in a flash.

Michael Watkins was 9 years old when the school bus he was riding on the way to his Indiana charter school crashed into a bridge in March 2012.

The bus driver, 60-year-old Thomas Spencer II, and a student, 5-year-old Donasty Smith, died in the crash. Dozens of other students were injured – including Watkins, who broke his femur.

On average, five children die in school bus crashes each year, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).

Watkins’ mother, Natasha Hobbs, believes her son’s injury could have been prevented had he been wearing a seatbelt on the school bus.

“All I know is he wasn't in one and he ended up with a broken femur, two surgeries, a wheelchair, walker, therapy,” said Hobbs.

U.S. regulations only require seatbelts on small school buses – those under 10,000 pounds. And only six states require all school buses to be equipped with seatbelts (Texas, California, Florida, Louisiana, New Jersey and New York) – a big difference from click-it-or-ticket laws across the nation that require passengers in cars to buckle up.

Watkins, now 12, says he doesn’t understand why seatbelts aren’t required on school buses as they are in other vehicles.

“It’s silly. If you’re gonna wear a seatbelt in the car, you gotta wear it on the bus too,” said Watkins. “But there's not one on a bus.”

GMA Investigates was on the scene for a crash test at C.A.P.E., the Center for Advanced Product Evaluation. The test was run by IMMI, one of the leading providers of seatbelts in the school bus industry. Inside the school bus were 12 dummies of different ages, seated in different positions – four dummies wore seatbelts and eight did not.

High-speed cameras captured what happened when a bus crashed into a wall at 30 miles per hour. Later, Larry Gray, CEO of IMMI, walked ABC News Anchor Paula Faris through the bus wreckage.

A middle-to-high school-sized dummy – who did not wear a seatbelt – was initially sitting on the edge of a seat with one leg in the aisle. After the crash, the dummy hit the seat, spun around and landed in the aisle.

A 6-year-old-sized crash test dummy - who was also not wearing a seat belt – was initially facing the rear of the bus and wearing a backpack. After the crash, the dummy struck the seatback behind him, rebounded and hit the seatback in front of him, before falling out of his seat and into the aisle.

Both a 6-year-old-sized dummy and middle-to-high school-sized dummy wearing seatbelts struck their heads on the seats in front of them, but remained “well-restrained and probably fared very well,” said Gray.

A full-frontal crash might seem bad, but experts say a high-speed rollover crash could be catastrophic. So IMMI moved its dummies to a second bus, and demonstrated a rollover test. Two of the dummies were belted and three were unbelted.

Despite the bus rolling onto its side, the two belted dummies remained safe in their seats. The dummies without seatbelts, meanwhile, were thrown throughout the school bus.

“You can see that the two children that are belted, it’s a no-brainer, they’re in their compartments and they’re safe, the children that are unrestrained, this is very dramatic,” said Gray. “They’re thrown throughout the vehicle and they hit hard surfaces or the roof of the vehicle. So we see that seatbelts protect and reduce injuries.”

IMMI says its research shows that, in general, lap-shoulder seatbelts can reduce injury and death by 50 percent.

But NHTSA, the government agency responsible for safety on the road, has long refrained from requiring seat belts on all school buses, saying that school buses are inherently safer than passenger cars due to their construction - even without seatbelts.

In addition, the agency has maintained that mandating seatbelts would have unintended consequences. The costs involved in outfitting buses with seatbelts, NHTSA has said, could reduce the number of buses available and wind up diverting more students into passenger cars, which they say would increase fatalities and injuries on the road.

While research shows that school buses are the safest way to transport children to school, even without seat belts, Hobbs questions that conclusion.

“Well, my kids were in a school bus accident and they were thrown around like marbles in a bag,” said Hobbs. “So, yeah, I challenge science.”

GMA Investigates wanted answers, so ABC News' Faris sat down with Mark Rosekind, the new head of NHTSA. Rosekind told Faris that although there has been no federal mandate requiring seatbelts on school buses, his agency is reviewing the issue.

“Everything’s on the table for us to look at,” Rosekind said. “So this issue is going to be looked at to see whether or not there’s more for us to do. Seatbelts, unquestionably, save lives.”

Faris questioned whether this was a change from the agency’s previous stance on seatbelts in school buses.

“I'm the new guy, fresh eyes,” answered Rosekind. “Does that mean we might change things? We may. We're gonna look for every action we can take to help those kids be safer.”

Weeks into his new role, Rosekind is now promising a full review.

“I'm waiting to see sort of what we're going to be able to do here,” Rosekind said. “I don't mind saying – because our kids are precious – we're going to do this one pretty fast.”

Hobbs agrees that children’s safety should be the priority. The mother on a mission says her goal is to make sure every school bus in Indiana has seat belts.

“This is our future. So we need to protect them,” said Hobbs.