Focus On School Bus Safety

Investigators are looking into the second major school bus crash in less than a week.

This time, 70 people were injured -- at least three of them seriously -- when two Indiana school buses stopped at a railroad crossing were knocked over by a trailer rig. Most of those on board the buses were special education students on a field trip. Indiana does not require seat belts in school buses.

This latest school bus accident comes amid growing questions about whether even new buses have been redesigned to maximize safety, and whether seat belts help or hurt in a bus collision.

In West Orange, New Jersey students have been "buckling up" on school buses for 20 years, reports CBS News Correspondent Bob Orr.

"It's really good to buckle your seat belt so you never get crashed by a car, says first-grader Amanda Ortiz.

Since 1992, that lesson has been taught throughout New Jersey -- the first of only five states to require seat belts on school buses.

Now, Arthur Yeager, one of the driving forces behind New Jersey's law, wants a national seat belt requirement. Without belts, Yeager argues, students can be thrown from the so-called "safety compartments" between padded seats.

"If a bus is hit from the side or in the all too frequent rollover, there's no compartmentalization," says Yeager. "We need the seat belt to keep the children in that compartment."

But don't expect a rush of other states to follow New Jersey's lead and require seat belts on school buses. Common sense might suggest that seat belts are a good idea. Science isn't so sure.

In fact, crash tests indicate seat belts offer little added protection, and in some cases may actually cause pelvic and head injuries.

Don't tell that to West Orange School Superintendent Jerry Tarnoff.

"There was an accident here in West Orange," says Tarnoff, "and our students on the bus were all buckled up, and none of them had any serious injuries at all."

The driver of the car involved in that accident, in November 1990, was killed.

Seat belts are readily available. It takes just minutes for workers to lash the belts to the seats. And they're not expensive - they only add about $2,000 to a $60,000 bus.

"And the buses last 12 to 15 years," says Yeager. "So for $100 a year -- about a penny per child, per trip -- that really is not a cost item."

But federal regulators in the middle of a two-year study of school bus design are not at all ready to mandate seat belts -- meaning most students across America won't be buckling up any time soon.