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Seat belts in school buses right call

Profile image for Dallas Morning News Editorial
Dallas Morning News Editorial

For half a century, seat belts in cars have been saving American lives. The nation's vehicle accident death toll has dropped dramatically since the landmark 1968 federal requirement that required passive restraints in all new passenger cars.

Yet the glaring exception is school buses. Despite undeniable evidence that seat belts save lives, most states, school districts and even safety agencies have argued for years that school buses, by design, are already safe enough, and that seat belts would be prohibitively expensive.

That's gradually changing. And Texas -- in this rare case -- is in the regulatory vanguard. As of this month, all 2018 and later model school buses must be equipped with "three-point" shoulder lap belts for each passenger. Many states have debated similar legislation, but ours is one of only a handful that has adopted new laws.

It's not absolute: Districts may opt out of the requirement, but only if they conduct an open vote after a public hearing. Parents themselves will be able to make their voices heard before school officials decide whether the additional safety measure is worth it.

The fact is that school buses are statistically safe, much more so than any other form of transportation our kids use to get to and from school. An average of 500 school-aged children die in passenger vehicle wrecks during school hours nationwide each year; the average death toll aboard school buses is only four. That's a pretty good record.

But a single wreck can create multiple tragedies. Last year, a driver lost control of a school bus not equipped with seat belts in Chattanooga, Tenn. The bus flipped on its side, slammed into a tree and was cut in half. Six grade-school children died, and a dozen more were badly hurt.

An earlier accident in Anaheim, Calif., was similar -- a bus flipped over and slammed into an obstacle -- but with a significant difference: The bus was equipped with belts. No kids were killed.

The American Academy of Pediatrics and National Safety Council have long endorsed seat belts in school buses. In a bellwether switch, the National Highway Safety Traffic Association added its endorsement in late 2015.

"Seat belts save lives," said the association's chief, Mark Rosekind. "That is true whether you're in a passenger car or a big yellow bus."

Texas' new law was sparked by tragedy: Separate school bus wrecks in Beaumont and Houston that each killed two students and injured others. In testifying on the proposed legislation, the father of a teenage girl seriously injured in the Beaumont wreck said "If you can afford to build new stadiums, if you can afford digital scoreboards, then you can afford the protection that our children deserve."

The Texas Legislature agreed.

Yes, it's expensive. And yes, it provides an extra safety margin for transportation that already has an impressive safety record.

It shouldn't take the horror of dead and injured kids to justify that extra margin.