WASHINGTON -- The National Transportation Safety Board decided yesterday against recommending seat belts on school buses but called for tough new safety standards and urged that school buses and tour buses carry airline-style "black boxes" to help investigators understand accidents better.
The board also urged governors to set up a uniform reporting system on bus accidents and asked the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) to collect data on passenger injuries.
The board's report followed a three-year investigation into bus accidents nationally -- including a fatal crash two years ago in Easton. The bus driver in that accident died and 27 students were injured when a tractor-trailer collided with a school bus at a foggy intersection.
In studying that crash and five others, researchers discovered that more students would probably have been hurt had they been wearing seat belts.
"A lot of parents seem to think we're giving a mixed message to kids as we send them off on school buses," said Jim Hall, chairman of the safety board. But until more testing is done, he said, the merits of belts on buses remains doubtful.
"We do not want to make the same mistake we made with air bags," he said, referring to the passenger deaths that resulted from air bags installed without adequate testing.
On average, nine people are killed in school bus accidents each year -- numbers low enough to make school buses among the safest forms of transportation. But bus designs are dated and haven't benefited from improvements in safety technology, Hall said.
"The use of school buses is changing and expanding, and we haven't taken a comprehensive look at interior design in a long time," said Mark Edwards, managing director of traffic safety for AAA. "This is a very good idea. I'm sure there are gains in safety to be made."
The board has no regulatory authority, but its recommendations carry substantial weight in the shaping of state and federal rules.
Dr. Kris Bolte, a researcher for the board who analyzed the effects of seat belts in the accidents, said existing school bus seats are simply not designed for the belts.
Unlike car seats, which conform to the body, school bus seats consist of a straight back and flat seat.
Simulated accidents showed that in collisions, students wearing lap belts were more likely to suffer head injuries because the head is thrown forward, striking the seat in front.
The belts can also contribute to a whipsaw effect on the upper body as the hips remain secured by the belt, she said.
Unbelted passengers in a collision are likely to have fewer injuries because they would be thrown forward into padded seat backs, with the legs and chest absorbing most of the impact.
The studies showed that students who remain within seat areas during an accident were much less likely to be seriously injured because of the protective padding.
"Based on this research, our staff determined that lap and lap-shoulder belts are not the simple solutions to bus restraints many people think," said Bolte.
Board members said they don't have enough information to advise states, such as New York and New Jersey, that require seat belts on school buses.
Also yesterday, the board called on the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to review bus seat design in the next two years and set standards that will better protect passengers in both collisions and rollovers.
Such studies will almost certainly reopen the seat belt discussion.
"Until the issue of the seat design is addressed, the seat belt issue can't be dealt with effectively," said Hall.
The study, which also looked at tour bus safety, called for new performance standards for roof strength on those buses and revised window glazing standards to help prevent ejections during accidents.
The board harshly criticized the lack of uniform federal requirements for tracking bus accidents and recommended that both the Department of Transportation and NHTSA find ways to collect data.
One of the recommendations is the installation of data recorders similar to the black boxes on aircraft that help plane crash investigators.
"If we don't have data available, we can't responsibly make recommendations on what should be done," said Robert Francis II, vice chairman of the board.
Karen Finkel of the National School Transportation Association, which represents 5,000 school bus contractors across the country, said she was uncertain whether the data recorders are feasible.
"We certainly think it's worthwhile looking into," she said.
The NHTSA is midway through a $1 million study required by Congress to determine in part the merits of seat belts on buses. "I think this just continues in a nice way to put pressure on everyone to get that study completed," said Finkel.
Pub Date: 9/22/99