A highway collision between a grain truck and a Mountainburg, Ark., school bus has reopened the issue of bus safety.

Although the collision resulted in the death of two Mountainburg students, the superintendent of the district says it has no plans to put seat belts on school buses. Yet, redesigning the inside of buses can improve safety, state and federal officials said.

“We will comply with state and federal regulation as far as our buses are concerned,” Superintendent Jim Bridges said. “But we don’t have any plans to make any changes.”

Bridges said the Mountainburg School Board would have to decide whether to place seat belts on the buses. He said none of the members have discussed the measure, and school board members could not be reached.

In Arkansas, school districts can request that seat belts be installed with new buses. The districts also decide whether to add seat belts to their existing fleet.

State Rep. Mike Creekmore, D-Little Rock, introduced legislation last session to require seat belts on school buses, but the bill failed.

Creekmore said he researched statistics on buses using lap-and-shoulder seat belts for more than 20 hours. The lap-and-shoulder, or three-point, seat belt is the same as those found in cars. Creekmore said if there were seat belts on the Mountainburg bus, the outcome might have been different.

“A three-point seat belt could have made a world of difference, especially on a side impact like that,” Creekmore said. “Any person would have thought it could have helped.”

Joe Osterman, National Transportation Safety Board highway safety director, said when school buses were redesigned 25 years ago, they were made with well-padded, well-anchored, high-backed, evenly spaced seats to cushion impact when buses were hit from the front or the back.

But when a bus is hit from the side or rolled over as in the Mountainburg accident, the design does little to protect occupants. On May 31, a loaded grain truck exiting Interstate 540 collided with the bus, killing two students and injuring seven others and both drivers.

“When buses are hit from the side or roll over, kids come out of those compartments,” Osterman said.

He added that if lap belts are on a bus, they’re a poor substitute for safety because they could increase the risk of injury.

The safety board investigated nine bus collisions over five years and found that children were injured more from the lap belts than the collision, because a small child could slide under the belt.

Osterman said using a lap-and-shoulder belt would be safer because it anchors a person at three points. Osterman said the board recommended to the Department of Transportation a national standard but that no decision has been made.

The Department of Transportation sets federal safety requirements that school buses must meet.

Massachusetts-based Busbelts Develo- pment Corp. manufactures seats that include lap-and-shoulder belts. Installation costs $3,500 per bus, an average charge of $3.24 per passenger. Chief Executive Gary Murphy said the seats are an improvement because “these seats will keep them in their place.”

Osterman said the Department of Transportation should update school buses operating today as well as those being built.

“The wrong solution would be to slap a belt on a bus that was not designed for it,” he said. “The right solution is to redesign the bus.”

Links:

National Transportation Safety Board, 490 L’Enfant Plaza SW, Washington, D.C. 20594; phone (202) 314-6000, web http://www.ntsb.gov.

U.S. Department of Transportation, 400 7th Street SW, Washington, D.C. 20590; phone (202) 366-4000, web http://www.dot.gov.

Busbelts Development Corp., 61 Endicott Street, Building 26, Norwood, MA 02062; phone (781) 762-3394, fax (617) 249-0362, web http://www.busbelts.com.