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50 Years of Seat Belts Saving Lives – But Not on School Buses

Volvo introduced the first three-point seat belt in 1959. It was developed by safety engineer Nils Bohlin, and it debuted in the Volvo PV 544. Here’s a video from Volvo about the 50-year history of the seat belt:

You may remember that three-point belts (which go across the lap and the shoulder) were commonly available only in front seats until the 1980s. Backs seats normally had lap belts only. Then evidence of “seat belt syndrome” appeared; lap belts could cause separation of the lumbar vertebrae and even paralysis. Since September 1, 2007, all cars sold in the United States must have a three-point seat belt in all seats (except for seats that face sideways, which may have a lap belt only).

Seat belt syndrome resulted in a number of high-profile personal injury cases. For instance, one case in Los Angeles ended in a $45 million jury verdict against Ford Motor Company. The judgment was affirmed on appeal in 2006.

Ironically, most school buses do not have seat belts. Currently, only New York, New Jersey, California, and Florida require seat belts on school buses. School buses in Texas will be equipped with seat belts by 2011.

Officials argue that the compartmentalization of school children between padded seats absorb crash forces. Most states do not require seat belts because of this compartmentalization. However, the compartmentalization only works for some accidents, like head-on accidents. The padded seats do nothing for child safety if the bus is hit from the side, or if it rolls over.

In 1999, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) conducted a study which found that “current compartmentalization is incomplete in that it does not protect school bus passengers during lateral impacts with vehicles of large mass and in rollovers, because in such accidents, passengers do not always remain completely within the seating compartment.

In March of 2000, a train struck the side of a school bus in Murray County, GA. The driver and three children were tossed from the bus. Of the ejected passengers, two sustained serious injuries, and one child was killed. Four children remained inside the bus; two of them were fatally injured, and one sustained serious injuries. One child on the bus was actually restrained by a lap belt and only received minor injuries.

Still, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) argues that the installation of seat belts would reduce seating capacity by 17 percent and add substantial expenses to school districts. The NHTSA concludes that “there is insufficient reason for a federal mandate for seat belts on large school buses.

The NHTSA states, “School bus transportation is one of the safest forms of transportation in the United States. We requires all new school buses to meet safety requirements over and above those applying to all other passenger vehicles. These include requirements for improved emergency exits, roof structure, seating and fuel systems, and bus body joint integrity. These requirements help ensure that school buses are extremely safe.”

But wouldn’t seat belts make school buses even safer? School buses are awkwardly shaped vehicles that are prone to roll over, and it seems that seat belts would significantly reduce injuries and fatalities in these types of accidents.

Case in point: Last year a school bus carrying 27 students in Canton, GA (about 40 miles north of Atlanta) overturned on its morning route. Eleven students were taken to the hospital for treatment, and some of them suffered serious neck and back injuries.

A study published in the November 2006 issue of the journal Pediatrics found that school bus accidents send an average of 17,000 children to emergency rooms each year.

If you or a loved one has been injured in a bus wreck or auto accident, call MLN Law at 404-531-9700 to schedule a free consultation. You may be entitled to monetary compensation for recovery.