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Seat belts on school buses: Do they keep children safe?

Jean Sattler hugs her son, 8-year-old Caleb, before he gets on his Fairbrook Elementary school bus. She believes her son's school bus is safe even though it doesn't have seat belts.
Kathryn Mobley
Jean Sattler hugs her son, 8-year-old Caleb, before he gets on his Fairbrook Elementary school bus. She believes her son's school bus is safe even though it doesn't have seat belts.

Several stakeholders share their opinion on whether or not Ohio's school buses should have three point seat belts.

Nine states have seat belt laws or requirements for school buses. Ohio is not one of those states.

In the Buckeye State, the issue is getting renewed attention after an 11-year-old boy died when a minivan struck his Northwestern Local Schools bus last month, causing it to roll over. That bus was not equipped with seat belts.

Hermanio Joseph, 35, was allegedly driving the minivan. The Springfield man now faces involuntary manslaughter and vehicular homicide charges. His pretrial is Monday morning, September 25, in Clark County Common Pleas Court.

Meanwhile, in Beavercreek, 8-year-old Caleb Sattler walks to the bus stop with his mother, Jean and 4-year-old brother, Eli. The second grader attends Fairbrook Elementary. His bus does not have seat belts.

While he says he feels safe — Caleb thinks having seat belts would reduce chaos on the bus.

"People stand up a lot and go from seat to seat a lot every time it (the school bus) stops," Caleb explained.

His mother, Jean chimed in, "Then your bus driver has to stop and tell everybody to sit down and stay out of the aisle….right?"

"Right," Caleb replied.

Three of Jean’s four children attend Beavercreek schools — all ride the bus.

"I do feel they’re safe on the school buses — I think they’re probably safer on the school bus than in my car because it’s a big yellow bus," Jean stated confidently.

She waves to Caleb, who's sitting next to the window. His bus turns a corner and disappears down the road.

Doug Palmer agreed with Jean.

"Statistically, children are 70 times safer in a school bus than in a car being driven by their parent," said Palmer, the Senior Transportation Consultant for the Ohio School Board Association.

Palmer oversees transportation issues for the state’s more than 700 school districts, about 600 of them transport students.

According to Palmer, Ohio’s school buses are designed with numerous safety features cars don’t have.

"There's a roll bar every place where you see the rivets around the top of the bus and down the side, so that bus won't crush," Palmer explained. "We now have the electronic stability control that keeps the bus more stable. We have automatic slack adjusters that keeps the brakes adjusted all the time. That full frame runs from the front bumper to the rear bumper so the body is allowed to slide on the frame to absorb some of that energy if the bus hits something or is hit by something in the front or rear."

Rudy Breglia, a staunch advocate for seat belts, applauds these safety features — but wants more.

He’s been involved in a pilot program using seat belts on school buses in his city, Avon Lake in Northeastern Ohio.

"If you're in a bus and you're not restrained, you're going at the same speed the bus is going at. When the bus stops, a sudden stop or a crash, you're going to be propelled forward and your face is going to hit the seat in front of you, if you're lucky, at 35 miles an hour. I don't care how soft that seat is, you're going to get hurt," Breglia said.

But Palmer contends the closely positioned — thickly padded, high-backed school bus seats are protective.

"That seat in front of that child will absorb the energy of a 240 pound fullback football player."

School bus seats are designed with compartmentalization in mind. Thickly padded cushions, high backs, and offset seating are used to absorb shock and cradle children in the event of a frontal or rear impact. Bench seats can hold three elementary school students or two middle and high school students.

According to the Ohio Highway State Patrol, the Clark County school bus crash is the second student death on a school bus in Ohio since 2010. That’s when a 6-year-old was killed in Zanesville when his bus struck a powerline and flipped into a ditch. The National Transportation Safety Board has recommended all school buses have seat belts.

In Ohio, the City of Beachwood requires all new school buses to have restraints. The Hudson and Avon Lake school districts each received two buses with safety belts through a 2019 state pilot–but neither participated nor do they require students to use the restraints. Joelle Magyar is Avon Lake’s school superintendent, student population is 37-hundred.

Magyar said during the pilot, their elementary students struggled to unlatch themselves.

"Which then required the bus driver to get out of their seat to assist the kids getting out of the seatbelt, which then is a whole other safety issue, you've got your bus driver who isn't permitted to get out of their seat unless there is an emergency." Magyar this could be disastrous if there was a fire on the bus or the bus was stuck in a waterway.

The average school bus is 36 to 40 feet long with 77 to 84 bench seats that are slightly offset from each other. The sitting area is 39 inches wide and long enough for three elementary students. But Magyar explains seat belts mean only two elementary students per seat — exacerbating another current problem.

"If we could not put as many kids on a bus on a route that's going to require more drivers, which we certainly don't have today. And this is not just an Avon Lake issue. This is a statewide issue most definitely," Magyar explained.

Ohio gives most districts additional dollars for transportation expenses. The Northwestern Local Schools gets a little more than $81,500.

Seat belts also increase the cost of buses. A standard bus ranges between $110,000 to $150,000. It’s about $12,000 more to add three point shoulder/lap safety belts.

While Magyar admits the added expense is a deterrent, they have a fleet of 36. Ten buses have been recently purchased — they don’t have seat belts.

But Magyar explained the main reason Avon Lake isn’t using the seat belts is because according to the experts, "They could not say that the buses were any safer with the seatbelts on them than they were without."

Meanwhile, some parents equate children wearing a seat belt in a car to wearing one on a school bus.

But Palmer says it’s not the same because on a school bus, children do not have the same kind of close supervision.

"In a parent's car, the parents are sitting right in the front seat, and they can tell when a child has the belt on. And that's not the case in a school bus where there are many seats with many different children. They just have a lot of freedom when they get on the bus. You cannot expect the same behavior in a child going in a car versus a school bus," Palmer said.

Tom Brothers two granddaughters attend Northmont Elementary. He believes seat belts on school buses are a great safety tool.

If you want students to be responsible riders, Brothers offers this suggestion, “Have a sit down with the children in the auditorium and tell them there’s going to be consequences if you’re caught not wearing a seat belt," Brothers said. "Sure you’re going to have some rebels, but the majority of kids will be in seat belts.”

Meanwhile, Jean Sattler, sees another benefit to seat belts on school buses.

"Putting seat belts on buses would help not just the students but the drivers because they have a lot of pressure on them to keep the kids safe."

Kathryn Mobley is an award-winning broadcast journalist, crafting stories for more than 30 years. She’s reported and produced for TV, NPR affiliate and for the web. Mobley also contributes to several area community groups. She sings tenor with World House Choir (Yellow Springs), she’s a board member of the Beavercreek Community Theatre and volunteers with two community television operations, DATV (Dayton) and MVCC (Centerville).

Email: kmobley@wyso.org
Cell phone: (937) 952-9924