Jason Sherman wasn’t surprised by the latest safety recommendations issued recently by the National Transportation Safety Board.
The director of facilities and transportation at Delaware City Schools, Sherman has seen the debate about seat belts on school buses rise and fall in intensity around high-profile accidents, such as the school bus crash with a dump truck on Interstate 80 in Mount Olive, New Jersey, on May 17 that left two dead and 43 injured. The 77-year-old driver, Hudy Muldrow, has had his license suspended 14 times (six for unpaid parking tickets), as well as eight speeding tickets and one careless driving citation, according to the New Jersey Motor Vehicle Commission.
The conversation accelerated Tuesday, when the NTSB, a governmental organization that investigates transportation accidents, released safety recommendations based on its review of two 2016 school bus crashes.
For the first time, the NTSB recommended all new large school buses be equipped with lap and shoulder belts. Additionally, it recommended new buses have automatic emergency braking and electronic stability control.
That same day, State Rep. John Barnes Jr., D-Cleveland, brought the debate to Ohio when he introduced legislation that would phase in old buses, but require all new buses districts acquire beginning July 1, 2019, to have seat belts. Eight states currently have some type of law involving seat belts on school buses.
"The school-bus, seat-belt debate is likely to rage on because there are very good arguments for seat belts and very good arguments against the seat belt," Sherman said.
There are a few key reasons why some don’t support requiring seat belts on large school buses (smaller buses weighing under 10,000 pounds are required by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to have them). Large school buses spread the impact of a crash differently than a typical car, according to the NHTSA, and they also try to protect passengers through "compartmentalization," which uses the proximity of seats and padding on seats to provide safety.
Concerns over the cost of having to add seat belts to existing buses also are widespread, though NTSB’s recommendations and Barnes’ legislation would apply only to new buses.
"If the seat belts have been successful in our personal cars, then certainly having seat belts in the commuting between school and home on a public school bus should be equally as safe," Barnes told The Dispatch.
Scott Varner, spokesman for Columbus City Schools, said in an email that the district will be monitoring the rekindled seat-belt discussion, but noted its safety requirements come from the Ohio Department of Education and Ohio Highway Patrol.
Varner said the district is focused on safety, which is why it added new small buses with seat belts and experimented with having booster seats available for younger, smaller students.
"We look forward to hearing what our state and national policymakers have to say," Varner said.
Delaware City Schools are prepared to comply with what policymakers might decide, Sherman said. When asked what his thoughts on seat-belt regulations were, Sherman focused his answer on exploring the complexity behind the issue.
"Each crash has different characteristics," he said. "What works to save lives in one crash might work to not save lives in another crash ... If a school bus ended up on fire, or under water, seat belts could hinder the evacuation of that bus and cost lives. But if a school bus is in a very severe collision and children are thrown out of the seat, then the compartmentalization that we rely on on school buses won’t work if the child is not in the seat.
"That’s the heart of the debate," he said.