Boarding the bus

A young boy gets on a school bus at a stop in the Yuma Valley early on a recent morning. 

While the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration recently endorsed putting seat belts on school buses, Yuma school transportation officials don’t anticipate local buses getting them anytime soon due to high costs.

Yuma Education Transportation Consortium Director Ron Schepers said that retrofitting buses with three-point seat belt systems, as were endorsed by the NHTSA, can cost over $500 per seat for a full-size bus with 28 seats. That would cost the consortium about $15,000 per bus, he said.

Additionally, new buses without the three-point seat belt system already cost $130,000 to $140,000.

“As a consortium, we have not discussed retrofitting any of our full-size route buses with seat belts,” said Schepers.

He did add, however, that they will continue to have lap belts installed in any new special-needs bus they purchase.

Of the 159 buses in the consortium’s fleet, 49 of those vehicles are smaller special-needs buses that have lap belts installed, as per the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

The consortium serves students in Yuma Elementary School District 1 and the Yuma Union High School District.

Peter Erlenbach, transportation director for the Crane Elementary School District, also said that their special-needs buses are the only buses in their fleet with seat belts.

“I am not aware of any other school district in Arizona having seat belts in their full-sized buses,” he said. “Only six states mandate seat belts on school buses, and these are lap belts only, not the three-point system that NHTSA is endorsing. … At this point in time, we have no plans to retrofit our full-sized school buses with seat belts.”

Erlenbach also said that high costs prevent the Crane district from adding seat belts to its buses.

“Retrofitting full-sized conventional school buses with three-point seat belt systems poses two costly dilemmas. It's not only the cost of the seat belts; it’s also the hefty cost of buying more buses to accommodate all the student riders with seats belts. Invariably, three-point seat belt systems limit the number of students who can squeeze into a bus seat.”

He explained that full-sized school buses rely on a concept called “compartmentalization” to safeguard students in the event of a collision. With thickly padded bench seats spaced close together and high seat backs, Erlenbach said that this creates a “compartment” to help protect riders.

“Ironically, though, more student riders die when they're hit by a school bus or by vehicles illegally passing school buses than when riding in buses, according to the NHTSA,” he said.

Schepers concluded that the NHTSA has not put out a mandate to install three-point seat belts, only a recommendation, and therefore it doesn’t directly affect the consortium.

“I have worked in the school transportation industry for over 26 years. During that time, I have filled about every roll available to transportation,” he said. “School buses have always been the safest form of ground transportation, bar none.”

He said that the compartmentalization method has served the industry well throughout the years.

“With that said, the seat belt technology has improved greatly over the last several years, and recent testing has supported it. I understand the pros and cons surrounding seat belts on buses, and I would need to see seat belts in real-time use to form an opinion either way.”

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