West Virginia won’t require seat belts on public school buses.
State Board of Education members approved changes to their bus policy Wednesday, but they didn’t add seat belts as a requirement for either existing or new buses. That’s despite the National Transportation Safety Board and American Academy of Pediatrics recommending them.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration leaves the choice up to states, despite its former director backing requiring seat belts.
The proposals state school board members placed out for public comment in October would have at least newly required seat belts — actually, enhanced restraints called Child Safety Restraint Systems — for children under 5-years-old and weighing under 40 pounds.
State Department of Education officials said even that was an inadvertent proposal, and they changed that to just a recommendation by the time board members voted to approve the proposals Wednesday.
The vote was a voice vote with no nays heard. Daniel Snavely was the only one of the nine board members absent.
In response to public comments requesting that seat belts be required, the department wrote:
“School buses are designed to be safer than passenger vehicles in avoiding crashes and preventing injury. The most common place for injury on a bus is near the point of impact for collision-based incidents, according to bus manufacturers. West Virginia buses have compartmentalized seats which are designed closely spaced with high energy absorbing seat backs.”
But an NTSB report noted that, among about 3,500 school bus crashes nationwide from 1985 to 2016, “crashes involving rollovers were far more likely to result in fatalities, with 124 deaths in 117 rollover crashes.”
“For maximum safety in all types of crashes, school bus passengers need additional protection beyond compartmentalization,” the report said.
And in October, the state education department noted a flaw in compartmentalization: 400 buses with those supposedly energy-absorbing seat backs might have actually lacked the cushioning needed to absorb impacts, putting children at risk.
Chuck Bennett, of Matheny Truck Centers, the dealer for the affected buses, said Matheny still hasn’t received vehicle identification numbers from Germany-based Daimler AG. Thomas Built Buses, the bus manufacturer, is part of Daimler.
Bennett said these VINs are needed to know which buses are flawed.
Michael Montgomery, of Charleston, said in a written comment to the board that “law requires we wear seat belts in our personal vehicles because it saves lives and reduces overall costs to society. Our children deserve the same protection.”
Addie Tennant, a Morgantown mother, also backed belts.
“The safety of all our children is paramount,” she wrote. “When parents entrust their children to bus drivers, they know that they will do the best possible job protecting those children, our buses should be the same.”
But Felicha Townsend, of South Charleston, raised cost concerns and wrote that “trying to remove multiple children from restraints and off the bus, could be a severe safety hazard and may even be fatal if a fire was the issue.”
Several county school system officials, including the superintendents of Jackson, Pendleton and Ritchie counties and Carol Lane, Kanawha County’s preschool director, wrote comments opposing the apparently accidental, and now-recanted, proposal that would have required students under 5-years-old and weighing under 40 pounds be in Child Safety Restraint Systems.
Cost was a common concern.
State school board President Dave Perry said that, based on the information he’s received, requiring seat belts on buses “can be a detriment [to safety] as much as it can be an enhancement.” He told the Gazette-Mail he would provide this information after Wednesday’s meeting.
Board Vice President Miller Hall said he wasn’t aware of the American Academy of Pediatrics or NTSB supporting bus seat belts. He said he’d like to require them for younger students, although he wasn’t aware of what the current requirements for them were.