The emotions involved in a discussion of seat belts in school buses often set off a needlessly contentious debate that forestalls intelligent discussion about how the safety of children riding in school buses could be improved even more.
Unfortunately, your recent "Katie Couric's Notebook" segment about school bus safety did just that.
I therefore encourage you to step back from the emotion of this issue and consider why an industry that is predicated on and devoted to making sure that all children – including their own children, step-children and grandchildren - get to and from school safely would be opposed to the popular – some would say logical – thinking that kids in school buses would be safer if they were wearing seat belts?
The answer is not because it would cost too much. It's because there is no clear and convincing evidence that everyone would be safer wearing a safety belt while riding a school bus. In fact, there is significant evidence - not from the industry but from the leading national transportation safety experts - that while some kids might be safer wearing seat belts in a school bus, some kids might be in greater danger.
Safety experts at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration have examined the question of seat belts in school buses and concluded that lap belts have virtually no benefits (and children might actually be harmed by them). Those same experts have also concluded that lap/shoulder belts might provide a small, incremental benefit in some crashes and that any actual benefits would quickly be offset by the fact that every school bus would have reduced seating capacity meaning more kids would be walking to school or parents would have to drive them, both of which are less safe alternatives.
Seat belts were designed for passenger cars, SUVs and light trucks. Their primary purpose is to protect in frontal crashes and prevent passengers from being ejected from these vehicles during a crash. While important to use them always in these vehicles, it is also important to recognize that seat belts are not a panacea.
Despite safety belts in all cars and usage of 81 percent, nearly 100 people a day still die in crashes that make news only in the communities affected. There is little national outrage. Yet school bus crashes with life-threatening injuries or fatalities, while extremely rare events, inevitably make headline news and lead to a clarion call for seat belts any time they occur.
As you mentioned in your report, last month, a school bus in Alabama plunged off a freeway at high-speed and nose-dived into the ground. Quite frankly, we don't know if the seat belts you called for would have made a difference in this incident, and we won't until the National Transportation Safety Board completes its investigation. We do know that four children died in the catastrophic impact. We also know that dozens of other children survived. Why? Because the safety systems integrated into the design of every school bus in America worked even under horrific circumstances.
School buses since 1977 have been required to have closely spaced, high-back seats with thick foam padding designed to provide protection to children automatically. Your family vehicle is not designed this way and does not have this kind of protection. That's why it has seat belts and air bags.
In my view, it's a shame that you chose to paint the school bus industry with a stereotypical brush, especially since the industry not only doesn't oppose vehicle enhancements that will improve safety for all children, it typically leads the charge for them. Your viewers would have been much better served had you encouraged everyone to do something that truly improves the safety of children and not what may be the most expedient emotionally.
Michael J. Martin
National Association for Pupil Transportation