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Better buckled?

Sunday, March 5, 2006

(Photo)
Jerry Axtell, a student at the Sikeston Kindergarten Center, buckles his seatbelt.
SIKESTON -- Like most other transportation directors, Randy Thompson is confident Missouri school districts already provide the safest mode of transportation for children. He's just not sure state legislators feel the same.

"It is a proven fact children are safer in a bus than any other mode of transportation around," said Thompson, referring to the National Pupil Transportation Association fact.

Last month a bill filed in the Missouri House of Representatives requires school districts to add lap-shoulder seat belts to all buses beginning Jan. 1, 2007. House Bill 1674 exempts school districts from obligation of making sure students use the belts. Currently 3- and 4-year-olds must be seat belted in on school buses, according to state law.

"I'm not saying I wouldn't like to improve the safety of children, but I don't see where this will enhance their safety much more," said Thompson, who is the transportation director for Sikeston R-6.

Today the insides of buses are much safer than ever before, Thompson noted.

"The seats are compartmentalized and they are a fold-down design system to where if you have an impact, the child is supposedly thrown against the back of the seat in front of him and it's like a big safety net," Thompson explained. "And the seats should collapse and have a domino effect."

Statistics also say more fatalities occur outside the school bus than inside the bus, Thompson said. And according to the Missouri Department of Transportation, three fatalities occurred in school bus-related crashes in 2004, the most recent data available.

The bill came after Gov. Matt Blunt's call last September for a special task force to work on school bus safety. Among the task force recommendations included working to enact a requirement that lap-shoulder seat belts be in all newly purchased Missouri school buses.

In a given day, Sikeston R-6 bus drivers transport about 2,475 of the 3,700 students in the district, traveling about 275,000 miles a school year, Thompson said.

Currently Sikeston R-6 runs 10 secondary school buses with 52 or more students and 10 elementary buses with 52 or more students. Each bus sits three students to a seat.

"If they go to a lap belt, which is what they're pushing, there will be two students to a seat," Thompson said. And Sikeston will lose one-third of its bus capacity.

As a result, Thompson estimated Sikeston would need five or six new buses to meet the proposal, which would cost about $400,000. This doesn't include maintenance and insurance cost or retrofitting existing buses with the lap-

shoulder belts.

"I don't know anyone that's opposed to safety," said Sikeston R-6 Superintendent Steve Borgsmiller. "But there's also a matter of economics."

But Sikeston isn't alone in the bill's impact. If passed, the Missouri Association of Pupil Transportation estimated an additional cost at about $60 million statewide.

Although the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education will divide the funds with priority given to buses used for elementary schools, school officials say districts would be responsible for most of the cost.

In addition, another person on the bus would be needed to make sure students have their seat belts fastened.

"We don't know that by having seat belts, we'll have any greater safety record than what we have now," Borgsmiller said.

Thompson pondered a hypothetical situation in which a bus overturned in a water-filled ditch with 40 children belted to their seats.

Both Thompson and Borgsmiller assured safety of the children is also their No. 1 concern, but they aren't sure mandated seat belts are the answer. "You can't put a cost on children's lives," Thompson said.

However, Thompson said he doesn't think legislators are seeing the whole picture with the issue. "I'm definitely not in favor of it, and I think it will create more problems than it will solve," Thompson said.

Blunt's task force in 2005 came after two bus-related accidents, including a May 9 incident in Liberty, Mo., that killed two motorists and injured 23 children. Later that month, 20 students from Belleville, Ill., received minor injuries when their bus was struck by a tractor-trailer in St. Louis.

The bill, which is not yet scheduled for a hearing, is sponsored by Rep. Tim Flook, R-Liberty.

Rep. Peter Myers, R-Sikeston, said he currently remains undecided on the issue and welcomes opinions from the public.

"Most of my constituents don't think it's too economically feasible," Myers said. "It sounds great emotionally, if you're a parent. And my grandchildren ride school buses, and I want them to be as safe as possible, too."

Myers said the bill is definitely not a done deal. "It may never get to even the floor," Myers said.