North Carolinians better buckle up - unless they're on school bu - WFLA News Channel 8

North Carolinians better buckle up - unless they're on school bus

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RALEIGH, N.C. -

A nightmare scenario for parents happened earlier this month in Johnston County, when a tractor trailer and a school bus collided on Highway 70.

Several students and the bus driver were taken to a hospital.

One of the girls on the bus was trapped between seats, and rescuers cut open a seat to get her out.

"There was some movement between the seats, but she stayed in that compartment and was actually trapped for a period of time between these two padded seats," said Derek Graham, who heads up transportation services for the state Department of Public Instruction.

Graham said the girl being trapped between the seats in a padded compartment was a sign the bus design had worked.

But some parents, including Wendy Pannell of Cary, want more. North Carolina school buses do not have seat belts, and Pannell said having seat belts on buses "is very important."

Four states – California, New York, New Jersey and Florida – require seat belts on school buses.

Texas and Louisiana have not put their laws into effect because of lack of funding.

"If our personal cars require a seat belt, why we cannot put a seatbelt on a school bus?" asked Pannell.

Graham pointed to several reasons, including cost. Adding seat belts to a bus would add about $10,000 to the cost of a school bus, which is already roughly $80,000. Graham said that cost had to be weighed against the safety record of buses.

But Pannell isn't convinced and said the cost of a child's life "is priceless."

"I can understand that. I'm a parent, too. My kids rode the bus," Graham said. "When you look at the data of where we're losing kids, it's not inside the bus. Where we're losing kids is outside the bus, getting on and off when motorists disregard the stop arm."

In 2012, Wake County had the second-highest number of bus crashes, with 105, and there were 32 crashes that involved injuries. Mecklenburg County had 157 crashes, with 105 of the crashes leading to injuries. In North Carolina, there were 809 crashes that involved school buses, and 248 of those crashes had injuries.

The last time students died on the bus in this state was 1991, when three junior high students died when a dump truck smashed into a bus in Cornelius.

"When you have that kind of collision, really, all bets are off," Graham said.

A 2008 report to the General Assembly by the Child Fatality Task Force stated seat belts would only "marginally" improve the protection of students. The report pointed to bus color, size and the way seats are built as safety features.

"Sometimes we refer to it as like an egg carton, where we have students sitting in the seats that are padded behind them," Graham said.

Some, however, have argued that seat belts would be effective in keeping the students inside the compartment, which would make them safer. Seat belt advocates have said having seat belts would help keep children safe in instances where the bus rolls over.

Overall, seats have become more padded, and safer.

The North Carolina Department of Instruction took an old school bus and turned it into a display to show the evolution of school bus seating over the years. Going back to 1953, the display shows how the seats were low and had a metal bar. Over time, the seats got higher and added more padding."

The most recent change in federal regulation came last year, with the new seats being several inches higher.

One middle school student who was involved in an accident was Alex Shuster, whose bus in Cary crashed with a minivan in 2011.

"I just felt a big bump and fell over the seat and got my chest hurt," Shuster said.

His mother, Susan, does not believe a seat belt would have helped.

"I think it would take too much time in the loading and the unloading of the passengers to warrant seat belt use and I don't think many of the collisions involving a school bus are at a speed that would warrant it for safety reasons other than a little bit of jostling around," she said.

It's a debate that continues around the state as each day, 14,000 buses roll out, and the 750,000 children on board don't have to buckle up.

"If the student management benefits and the potential extra safety benefits lead to a requirement for lap and shoulder belts, if that funding becomes available, then that could become the next step," Graham said.

"But, it's not something that I would expect to see in the short-run in an area of tight budgets. And you're making data-driven decisions and the data says kids are in the most danger outside the bus versus inside the bus."

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