VIDEO: 5 things to know about school buses
Video: Mandi Albright/The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Video: Mandi Albright/The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

How does federal school bus seat belt policy change affect metro Atlanta schools?

Deadly school bus wrecks nearly two years ago have prompted federal officials to reverse a long-standing policy and recommend lap-and-shoulder safety restraints on all future school bus purchases.

Fulton and Gwinnett counties are the only metro school district to add buses equipped with that type of seat belt. All districts, however, are evaluating how they may incorporate the new safety recommendations into their fleets, and the state’s elected education chief says he will urge “the appropriation of funds for bus safety upgrades.”

The seat-belt shift was among several bus-safety recommendations prompted by the National Transportation Safety Board’s investigation of two school-bus crashes in November 2016, in Baltimore and Chattanooga, that injured 37 people and killed 12.

The NTSB’s previous position was that the weight and design of school buses and their high-backed seats provided sufficient safety for children.

“The school bus is still statistically the safest way to get to school,” said NTSB Chairman Robert L. Sumwalt during a press conference in late May, when it released its new recommendations.

NTSB investigators study the wreckage of a school bus crash on Nov. 21, 2016 in Chatanooga, Tenn. that killed six children. Courtesy of NTSB
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

But long before the NTSB changed its guidelines, the National Association for Pupil Transportation had been pushing for seat belts on school buses for nearly 40 years. At the NAPT 2015 Summit, former head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration Mark Rosekind stresssed that “every child on every school bus should have a three-point seat belt.”

Fulton County Schools transportation director Sam Ham was in the audience, and “There were audible gasps,” he said. “I turned to my friend and fellow school district transportation director and told him that we might as well get ready, because the day has arrived that we should add three-point seat belts to our fleet.”

Ham started the ball rolling, getting ready that very day.

“There were lots of things to consider: cost, bus capacity issues, etc.,” he said. Adding the seat belts cost an additional $8,000 per bus.

Fulton County voters overwhelmingly approved renewing a local sales tax for education, and the school district added “transportation safety enhancements” to proposed uses for that SPLOST revenue.

“Our transportation department had the full support of our superintendent and BOE as we started the school bus specification process to add three- point seat belts to new bus purchases,” said Ham.

Blue Bird bus manufacturer was introducing a new seat that meant “We could get three-point seat belts without loss of seating capacity,” Ham said.

Blue Bird and the seat manufacturer agreed to let Fulton pilot the seats. In August 2017, Fulton became the first school district in Georgia to introduce propane-fueled buses equipped with three-point seat belts, said Ham.

“We started school with 90 new propane buses, all equipped with the three-point seat belts.”

Sam Ham, executive director of the Fulton County Schools transportation department, speaks about the decision to switch some of his school buses from diesel fuel to propane gas. ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

As he swaps out the diesel-powered buses, Ham said every new bus will be equipped with the lap-and-shoulder seat belts. In the meantime, he’s exploring costs of retrofitting older buses that will be in service for the next five years or so.

Federal agencies and national student transportation organizations have been at odds on the seat-belt issue for decades. NHTSA decided the best way to provide crash protection to passengers of large school buses is through a concept called “compartmentalization.” This requires that the interior of large buses protect children without them needing to buckle up. Through compartmentalization, children are protected from crashes by strong, closely-spaced seats that have energy-absorbing seat backs. NTSB research has shown that bus design works best in frontal and rear-impact crashes. However, students often are thrown from their seats during side impacts and rollovers. The agency also recommended all states and territories that lack requirements for lap/shoulder belts on large school buses enact legislation.

An investigative look by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution about 18 months ago showed that there were on average about two school bus accidents a day in metro Atlanta. In 2016, 302 students and drivers were injured in Georgia bus crashes, according to state data. Most of the injuries were minor. There were 305 in 2015, and 231 injured in 2014.

Seat belts have been required on passenger cars since 1968; and 49 states and the District of Columbia have enacted laws requiring the use of seat belts in passenger cars and light trucks. Large school buses are heavier and distribute crash forces differently than passenger cars and light trucks do. Because of these differences, bus passengers experience much less crash force than those in passenger cars, light trucks and vans.

Each propane school bus comes equipped with seat belts for students at the North Fulton County Transportation office in Alpharetta , Friday, June 29, 2018. ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Currently, Georgia school districts have the option to purchase school buses equipped with seat belts, but it is not mandated by federal or state law.

“The state Department of Education is studying the NTSB report and will communicate with the Georgia legislature about the recommendations – those regarding seat belts and those regarding other safety upgrades, such as electronic stability control – and provide all pertinent information,” said spokeswoman Meghan Frick.

“Given the costs involved (adding seat belts, for example, adds about $9,000 to $12,000 per bus) Superintendent (Richard) Woods would strongly support the appropriation of funds for bus safety upgrades. This would make it much more feasible for local districts to include seat belts, or make other safety upgrades, on all school buses purchased.”

With the exception of Gwinnett and Fulton counties, none of the biggest 10 school districts in metro Atlanta have three-point seat belts on large buses. Atlanta Public Schools has lap belts on 26 of its 419 buses. Henry County has lap belts on its 80 special-education buses.

“We will study the recommendation further and work with others in the state prior to purchasing new buses,” said Forsyth County Schools spokeswoman Jennifer Caracciolo.

School bus seat belts in metro Atlanta
District name Buses in fleet Buses with 3-point seat belts
Gwinnett 1,980 660
Cobb 1,151 *
DeKalb 1,076 0
Fulton 800 189
Clayton 430 0
Atlanta 419 0
Forsyth 360 0
Henry 324 0
Paulding * 0
Cherokee * *
Source: School districts
*District did not provide data

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