In her young life, it is doubtful that Erika Dennis traveled anywhere without being strapped tightly into a car seat or buckled securely by a seat belt.
That is, until she went off to second grade at Howard County's Atholton Elementary on a school bus this week. It rumbled away with 7-year-old Erika perched on a beltless seat as her grandmother waved goodbye from the curb.
After years of debate and a string of fatal school bus accidents around the country, the National Transportation Safety Board plans to release the results of a bus crashworthiness investigation later this month. Some expect the board to recommend mandatory seat belts on school buses at that time. Although several medical and safety groups favor requiring the belts, others remain less than certain it's a good idea.
Erika's grandmother, Wanda Hurt, is president of the PTA Council of Howard County and a member of a statewide school bus safety task force.
"Most parents want seat belts in the buses," Hurt said. "But they could actually be more dangerous than beneficial to a child."
George Black is a member of the NTSB. "If this were an easy question, it would have been decided a long time ago," he said. "I personally will require some convincing that this is the right thing to do."
After teaching her daughter that seat belts are a must, such arguments make little sense to Erika's mother, Katie Dennis.
"Every parent wants their kids to have consistency," she said. "I don't like this. If someone hits them, they can go flying."
The NTSB has no regulatory power, but its recommendations carry substantial weight in the shaping of state and federal rules.
A decade ago, studies persuaded the board not to endorse mandatory belts on school buses. Not only did the research cast doubt about belt effectiveness, there also was evidence that lap belts could cause severe spinal injuries. The numbers of injuries and deaths from accidents did not justify the cost, the board decided. Belts could add $1,200 to $5,000 to the cost of a school bus, according to industry officials.
Of the 23.5 million children who ride buses to and from schools each year, on average 11 are killed and 350 seriously injured in accidents. Earlier studies said most of those children were directly in the line of collision and seat belts would have made little difference.
Safety panels such as the NTSB and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration have concentrated instead on making buses stronger in the event of rollovers, and on setting higher standards for brakes, tires and fuel systems. Only two states -- New York and New Jersey -- require seat belts on new school buses.
But several fatal school bus accidents, including one two years ago in Easton, forced the NTSB to revisit the issue. The bus driver in the Easton accident died and 27 students were injured when a tractor-trailer collided with a school bus at a foggy intersection.
In Flagstaff, Ariz., the same year, a bus ran off the road, throwing five teen-agers out the windows and injuring 31. Two of the students suffered brain damage and paralysis. And in Monticello, Minn., three children died when a gravel truck collided with their school bus.
Altogether, the board has investigated seven school bus accidents in the past few years involving nine fatalities and 121 injuries.
"We've been seeing the occurrence of fatalities in these types of accidents, and we're looking to see what we can do about it, if anything," said Black, who was the on-site investigator in two of the accidents and chaired a national hearing on the issue last fall.
Prior studies evaluated the performance of buses in head-on collisions and rollovers. The NTSB is focusing now on whether belts could make a difference in side-impact accidents. But a $1 million NHTSA study required by Congress is only half done, and some say that any recommendation before those results would be premature.
"I think it will be difficult for them to reach a conclusion this early," said Karen Finkel of the National School Transportation Association. "Without science in hand, it's anybody's guess what is the right answer."
The NHTSA study is looking beyond lap belts to the possible benefits of shoulder belts and restraining bars.
The American Academy of Pediatrics is among several medical groups that support belts in school buses. Deaths and injuries could be reduced by 20 percent, the group says.
"If it gets kids into the habit of putting on seat belts, and if it does save a life, it is worthwhile even if it is not particularly cost-effective," said Dr. Howard L. Taras, a San Diego pediatrician on the academy's school health committee.
Among the pluses: Mandatory belt use would virtually eliminate the risk of ejection during an accident and would keep students in their seats, some say.
"Anyone restrained by a seat belt, for the most part, is less likely to be killed -- we've known that for decades," said Mark Edwards, managing director of traffic safety for AAA.
Yet Edwards is among those who say belts on buses are not necessary.
"The people most at risk in a school bus crash are the people in the car that hit it," he said. "If you're worried about your children's safety, put them on a school bus."
In the Red House Run Elementary School district in Baltimore County, a school bus crash in June killed the driver, but did little to erase parents' questions about whether seat belts are necessary.
"At first, we all believed the buses should have them," said Tracey Boer, a PTA officer at the school and mother of three.
Then, she said, parents read about problems they'd never considered. Children on buses with seat belts used the metal buckles as weapons. They tied them across the aisle to trip each other. Horseplay might actually cause more problems, they reasoned.
Still, Boer said, a bus accident last year was the direct result of children "standing up and carrying on," blocking the driver's view and causing her to back into a tree. Would seat belts have made a difference?
"It's hard for parents to know which is best," said Boer.
When the transportation board meets Sept. 21, Black said he expects no rush to judgment. Any restraint system members supported would have to be proven safe for all passengers -- from the smallest kindergartners to high school fullbacks, he noted.
"We're going to have to see the test results to support it," he said. "A decision was made to endorse air bags prior to testing, and the net result is we had some people killed and injured who should not have been. We don't want to repeat that mistake."
Pub Date: 9/03/99