Crash raises issue of seat belts on Lowcountry school buses

BERKELEY COUNTY, SC (WCBD) — The South Carolina Highway Patrol is investigating a wreck that involved a flipped Berkeley County School bus Tuesday morning.

No children were on the bus, and no one was hurt, but some parents believe accidents like Tuesday’s are reason to install seat belts on school buses.
“Oh, I think definitely we need seat belts in the buses. They’re riding in these buses and have no control over who’s driving the bus, and I think parents would feel better too,” said Louise Marlin, a mother and grandmother.

At the beginning of the 2017 Legislative Session, Lawmakers filed a bill that would require seat belts on school buses. That bill still needs committee approval.

News 2 reached out to the South Carolina Department of Education, which explained the reasons why school buses do not currently have seat belts.

Via email, Ryan Brown, a department representative, wrote:

“In 40+ years of state pupil transportation we have had two casualties on a school bus. One of these students was actually wearing a seatbelt. National experts including the national highway traffic safety administration have testified before Congress that school buses are the most safe form of student transportation and they have not made the recommendation that seat belts should be equipped.

All new buses, including a recent order of 800+, are equipped with seat frames that can accommodate seat belts should the state choose to move in that direction. However, our older buses which make up the majority of the fleet are not able to retrofitted with seat belts due to a number of issues …

  • Older buses cannot be retrofitted: This would be a substantial cost considering that would mean purchasing approximately 4400 buses.
  • School buses purchased in SC before 2011, and a select number purchased in 2012, must have all seat frames replaced due to the frames being unable to accept shoulder/lap assemblies. If seat belts and seat frames were installed on pre-2012 buses, the buses would not be able to maintain their original FMVSS certification standards. It would lose some, if not all, of the below certifications if the frames were replaced.
  1. FMVSS 208 – Occupant Crash Protection
  2. FMVSS 209 – Seat Belt Assemblies
  3. FMVSS 210 – Seat Belt Assembly Anchorages
  4. FMVSS 222 – School Bus Passenger Seating and Crash Protection

The liability for the entire bus would then be placed on the state in the event of any failure including structural failures.

  • Additional salary cost for drivers: Because drivers would be required to ensure that all students were buckled correctly, this would require more time.
  • Increased route time could impact the 90-minute law: Buckling and unbuckling will require the driver to “assist” the student or wait until each student is buckled.
  • Increased evacuation times: Again, having to unbuckle students could increase the time needed to evacuate a bus in an emergency.
  • The law as written could also impact private operators: This would require not only the Department of Education’s fleet but other public school districts, as well as privately owned and operated fleets, to upgrade. This could be a very costly endeavor. Cost impacts could be difficult to ascertain due to the wide range of bus types, year models, and owners.
  • Cost to inspect and maintain the seat belts: This can and will add a significant time and labor cost to the school bus inspection process.
  • Increase cost to the seat repair and maintenance program: The seat cover as a part will increase in price as well as the labor to replace damaged covers.
  • Increases in the fleet size: Due to the reduction in seating capacity on a given size bus, this would possibly create the need for additional buses.
  • Build time: Suppliers would need time to build buses and supply needed seats and belts.”

Brown also added, “The cost as provided in our fiscal impact to the general assembly is $423,744,008.23 which accounts for the replacement of 4400 buses that cannot be retrofitted with seat belts. There are 5582 school buses in the state fleet that traveled a total of 82.2 million miles last year. Over 300,000 students ride SC school buses everyday.”

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