Lap Belt Safety Is Questioned

W A S H I N G T O N, May 3, 2002 -- Lap belts do not improve passenger safety on school buses and instead can put riders at high risk of severe or fatal neck injury, according to a new report by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

The findings are expected to lead to a change in federal recommendations on school bus passenger restraint systems.

ABCNEWS obtained a copy of the draft report on school bus safety and seatbelts, which was based on years of research and extensive crash tests. The findings will be formally presented to Congress.

Only Three States Require Lap Belts

The issue of seat belts on school buses has been hotly debated for decades.

New York, New Jersey and Florida require lap belts on all newly purchased school buses and the federal government requires them on the smallest of school buses (those under 10,000 pounds). They are the only kind of seat belt currently found on school buses.

Experts say NHTSA's report is likely to force states to re-evaluate their policies.

"I think those states are going to have to seriously reconsider what they currently require," says Charles Gauthier, executive director of the National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services.

ABCNEWS has learned that based on the study, the federal government will move away from lap-only belts on the smallest school buses. NHTSA is expected to recommend that lap/shoulder belts be required on these vehicles.

A Question of Costs

The government test found that lap/shoulder belts, which are mandatory in cars, could benefit school children by reducing head injuries and by substantially reducing neck injuries.

"Lap/shoulder belts have proven to be the best technology for every other kind of motor vehicles," says Gauthier. "Why wouldn't it be the best for a school bus also?"

However, the government is not expected to recommend lap/shoulder belts for larger school buses.

Part of the reason is cost.

By law, though, the government must consider the cost of a new regulation.

According to the report it would cost $120 million a year to outfit new buses with the lap/shoulder belt combination.

NHTSA estimates those belts would prevent only one student death a year. Fewer than 10 passengers a year die in school bus crashes, an average of two of the deaths are in head-on crashes, the type of crash in which NHTSA believes these seat belts are most likely to help.

David Burzinski, who lost his daughter in a school bus crash, says cost calculations are misplaced.

"We're talking about kids' lives and I don't think you can put a cost on any child's life," he said.

Burzinski believes a seat belt could have saved his 9-year-old daughter, Kristine, who died five years ago when a gravel truck smashed into her Minnesota school bus.

"My daughter died on a school bus because she was thrown out of her seat. She was thrown side to side and her head was crushed."

Experts Say Belts Would Prevent Injuries

Authors of the report also argue there is a great potential for students to misuse the belts, putting the shoulder strap under their arms or behind their back. They say that would make the belts no better than the potentially dangerous lap belts.

But Gauthier doesn't buy that argument.

"I would hate to see a safety technology ignored because we have concerns about it being misused when education, education, education can solve a lot of misuse."

And the American Academy of Pediatrics, which has pushed for seat belts in school buses, argues the study makes it clear that lap/shoulder belts should be mandated for school buses.

The academy points out that NHTSA has not estimated how many injuries the belts might prevent. An estimated 7,500 passengers are injured in school bus crashes every year, 350 of them seriously.

"Prevention costs, but injuries cost even more," says academy member and peditrician Dr. Phyllis Agran. "And I think it's important for children to get the message that you buckle up in whatever motor vehicle you are traveling in, including school buses."

School districts and states have been eagerly awaiting the NHTSA study before they decide whether to move forward on seat belts.

This may derail any moves to install lap only belts in buses. It's unclear whether it will convince states to move forward on lap/shoulder belts. Only one state, California, is poised to require lap/shoulder belts on school buses.