By Joe Messa
February 27, 2012 – The recent Burlington County, New Jersey school bus accident in Chesterfield, as well as the school bus accident in Cumberland, New Jersey, five days later, has re-ignited the debate over seatbelt requirements in states such as Pennsylvania where seatbelts are not mandated on school buses. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) is examining how seatbelt use factored into the New Jersey school bus crash that killed the 11-year-old triplet in the Chesterfield school bus accident and severely injured her two sisters and another student. Seventeen of the other 25 children on the school bus at the time of the accident were also treated for injuries. Five children were injured in the Cumberland County incident. While students have stated that seatbelts were being worn when a dump truck crashed into the Chesterfield school bus, the NTSB is investigating to determine if all the students were actually using the seatbelts and if the seat belts played a part in whom was injured and to what extent.
Although the NTSB recommends that school buses have seatbelts, this recommendation is not mandatory. Only New Jersey and 5 other states require seatbelts on school buses – Florida, Texas, California, New York, and Louisiana. Those states without a seatbelt requirement rely on the theory of “compartmentalization” on school buses. Compartmentalization is the theory that placing heavily padded seats closely together contains the child passengers within their seating compartment and absorbs energy, alleviating the effects of the impact from the crash. However, studies show that compartmentalization provides protection for only front and rear-end collisions and does nothing to mitigate injuries from bus rollovers or side impact crashes, which are very common. Children are injured and killed as a result of both ejection and being tossed violently within the bus itself during these types of accidents.
In addition, NTSB studies show that compartmentalization fails in all types of bus crashes for numerous reasons. The school bus seat covering is slippery and children slip under the seats sustaining injuries. The children seated on or closer to the aisle are relatively less protected by the effects of the compartment. Finally, the high center of gravity of school buses makes them relatively unstable and subject to frequent rollovers.
As a state without seatbelt requirements, Pennsylvania appears to agree that compartmentalization, although having obvious shortcomings, is sufficient protection for children transported in its school buses each day. The Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officials (PASBO) supports the installation of seat belts in school buses, provided that scientific studies prove that seatbelts enhance the safety of children on school buses, and that sufficient state and/or federal funding is provided. If these conditions aren’t meant, PASBO believes funding for seat belt installation could be better spent on other safety measures. Those who argue against seatbelts on school buses point to statistics showing that children are already safer riding to school on buses than riding in cars or on bicycles or motorcycles, or walking to school. They rely on federal studies that have concluded that the overall potential benefits of requiring seat belts on full-size school buses are insufficient to justify a Federal mandate for installation.
Many argue that there is no guarantee that once installed children will properly use seatbelts, and that children may even use them as weapons to strike or choke other students. The PASBO estimates the cost of adding seatbelts to new full-sized buses to be over $1,500 per bus, and the cost to retrofit existing buses at over $2,700 per bus. The annual maintenance cost of repairing or replacing seatbelts is estimated to be as much as $500 per bus.
The debate continues over the use of seatbelts on school buses in Pennsylvania and most other states, but the recent New Jersey school bus accidents make one thing certain. Whether or not seatbelts are required by law, when a school bus crashes, there will likely be injuries, and they will probably be serious. If your child is injured or killed in a New Jersey or Pennsylvania school bus accident, contact the experienced bus accident attorneys at Messa & Associates to discuss your situation. Our team of knowledgeable, compassionate Philadelphia personal injury attorneys will see that you get full compensation for your family’s ordeal. Call toll free at 1-877-MessaLaw to schedule a free consultation, or submit a free online inquiry.
Joseph L. Messa, Jr. is the founding partner of Messa & Associates, P.C. He is an AV-rated attorney (highest rating available), listed in the Bar Register of Preeminent Lawyers. Read More