By Jason Menard
When it comes to school bus safety, who truly needs to smarten up: the school bus designers or those who share the road with these yellow behemoths?
The question comes up again in light of the horrific accident in Huntsville, Alabama, which saw three teenaged girls killed and 30 other high schoolers injured when a school bus was involved in an accident that sent it through the guardrail of an overpass. The bus plummeted 30 feet to the ground, landing nose first.
Of course, nobody on that bus was wearing a seat belt, because as we all know most school buses aren’t outfitted with restraining devices. But would seat belts really help? Our knee-jerk reaction, cemented in the fact that the mantra of wearing a seat belt saves lives has been driven into our skulls, is yes. However, according to the Ministry of Transportation – Ontario, seat belts may in fact do more harm than good – and the buses’ design alone makes them safe for students.
School buses are designed to be compartmentalized, essentially creating little pockets of safety for each child. By installing well-anchored seats with higher backs that are filled with energy-absorbing material and placed closer together, those who have engineered the school buses have done what they can to promote safety for its occupants.
Conversely, putting restraining devices, such as seat belts, into a school bus may cause even more problems. As any parent knows, as children grow, their belt requirements change. In a school bus environment, it’s nearly impossible – and at the very least excessively impractical – to ensure that all seat belts are properly adjusted to the size and weight of a constantly changing series of seat occupants.
A poorly fitted seat belt can cause serious injuries in the event of an accident. And would that make the bus driver liable for any injuries caused by a child’s inability to properly adjust his or her restraining device? Should we expect our children to be able to handle this responsibility on their own?
Too many parents focus on the lack of a seat belt and look at that as a negligent act. They don’t look at the engineering and design aspects that have been implemented to compensate for the lack of a restraining device. In the end, save for any future adjustments and improvements to the design of the bus, it would seem that our children’s safety has been well accounted for. As hard as it may for us inundated with the importance of seat belts throughout our lives, the lack of seat belts in a school bus seems to be the right choice.
So if we can’t improve bus safety on the buses, then we have to look elsewhere for improvements. Specifically, instead of making the buses safer for the road, we have to make the road safer for the buses – and our children.
There are still times when we see people passing stopped school buses, either trying to beat the extension of the stop arm, or in complete defiance of it. There are still drivers who race through school zones at speeds well in excess of the posted speed limits. And there are still those motorists who choose to drive aggressively and erratically through our city streets.
The buses aren’t the problem. We are.
But what can be done? On a couple of occasions I’ve called police to report someone blowing past a stopped bus with its lights flashing. And while the dispatch person has been pleasant, the fact is that the police don’t have the man power to chase after every person who ignores not just the law, but basic common sense.
In fact, the greatest risk to our children doesn’t come while they’re on the bus, it comes as they’re getting off. And no belt in the world is going to protect them from that danger.
Currently there’s a national study looking at the issue of seat belts on school buses. The Ontario government has indicated that it will take the findings into consideration for the future. But chances are the status quo will be upheld.
In the end, assuring the safety of our school-aged children isn’t one that’s the domain of engineering. And no fabric strap or metal buckle will ever replace common sense as a deterrent for accidents.
Slow down. Watch for kids. And try to avoid the giant yellow vehicle in front of you. Then the whole point about seat belts becomes moot. After all, the best way to ensure the effectiveness of safety devices and design is to make sure they’re never called into use.
Inside the bus isn’t where the problem lies. Therefore, the burden falls squarely on our shoulders. If we drive safer, then maybe tragedies like the one in Huntsville can be avoided.
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