Pro: School bus seat belts prevent injuries

Nov. 11, 2012 at 5:11 a.m.
Updated Nov. 12, 2012 at 5:12 a.m.

Con: Buses built safer, so seat belts not needed

She would be 22 now, her mom said, had she worn a seat belt on the way to her high school soccer game.

Instead, Ashley Brown died at 16 in a bus rollover on March 29, 2006.

"When the glass broke and shattered, glass shards were coming up and the girls were coming down. It was horrible; it was horrific. Girls were pulling glass out of their heads for months after. My daughter and another teammate died on impact," said Melanie Psencik, Ashley's mother.

"I know for a fact that my daughter Ashley would still be here if there had been seat belts. But that wasn't an option on the bus," Psencik said.

After the accident, Psencik and her husband, Mike Psencik, of Victoria, lobbied with other parents to make it a state law to get seat belts on school buses.

They succeeded in 2007 when Gov. Rick Perry signed the Ashley and Alicia Bill into law, which states, "a bus operated by or contracted for use by a school district for the transportation of school children shall be equipped with a three-point seat belt for each passenger."

Put in place in 2010, the law also added, however, "A school district is required to comply with Subsection (e) only to the extent that the Texas Education Agency pays or commits to pay the district for expenses incurred in complying with that subsection."

Even though $10 million was allocated to fund the seat belt initiative in the 2009 Legislature, severe budget cuts slashed the grant money to $3.6 million and the TEA declared that seat belts on school buses would no longer be mandatory.

"A lot of school districts feel like they shouldn't have to fund it because it is too expensive," Psencik said. "But how much is the life of a child worth? It is just pennies, really, when you think about it."

Retrofitting a bus with seat belts, depending on the number of seats, would cost between be $5,485 and $7,346, said Catherine Howden with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

The safety office conducted crash testing for a report for Congress in 2002. Based on this data, they found seatbelts "showed little to no benefit in reducing serious or fatal injuries," Howden said.

However, the test did show that properly installed and used restraints did have the potential to lower injuries or fatalities, particularly in rollover crashes where ejection is more likely, she said.

And a rollover is exactly what happened to Ashley.

"If you roll a bus, you have lots of places children can fly. They become more like missiles," Psencik said.

Elizabeth Mack, who graduated from Victoria in 1998, said she has always believed buses should have seat belts.

She is thankful she now lives in Austin, where her 11-year-old daughter goes to school, because Austin ISD has installed seat belts on the buses.

"It contradicts the law," Mack said. "You are teaching your kids, 'You have to wear your seatbelt, you have to be in a booster seat' - not having the law associated with that in school is contradictory. Kids think, 'I don't have to follow authority, because my own school district doesn't follow authority.'"

In a study published by the safety office, there is a possibility students will "transfer their knowledge that they do not have to wear seat belts on buses to all vehicles."

Mack also thinks seat belts would lower the possibility of bullying on buses and make students easier for drivers to manage.

Iva Fuzzell, a retired school teacher from Memorial High School, agreed.

"It is kind of hard to reach around and hit somebody or jump across the seat if you have a seat belt," Fuzzell said. "I taught high school. I can think of a lot of reasons to have a seat belt. High school kids were always all over that bus."

Mack said even if a bus is never in an accident, seat belts make students more secure for their ride home.

"I remember going on the buses and I would fall out of the seat all the time and we would hit ourselves against the windows or the side of bus . When they make turns, it depends on the bus driver, if a bus turns real fast, you are hitting yourself. You are squishing yourself against the bus," Mack said.

Psencik said she understands school buses are built to be safer than cars, but believes schools should take every opportunity to protect children, including adding seat belts to buses.

"Accidents are going to happen, that is why they call them accidents. Why not put the kids in a seat belt so they are safe when the accident happens? It could mean the difference between life and death for that child," Psencik said.



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