The very tragic death of a Connecticut teenager involved in a school bus accident has reopened debate about the merits of seat belts on school buses. On January 9, Vikas Parikh, a 16-year-old student at Rocky Hill (Conn.) High School, died from a traumatic head injury when his school bus struck another car and plunged down an embankment. Although this is the first onboard school bus death in the state in over 40 years, Antonio Guerrera (D), state representative and co-chairman of the legislature's Transportation Committee, has vowed to pursue legislation mandating that seat belts be installed in new buses manufactured for Connecticut districts and possibly that current buses be retrofitted with seat belts. Parents, legislators and industry experts nationwide have debated the issue for over a decade.
"The National Highway Transportation Safety Association (NHTSA) conducted a lot of research and crash tests, but decided in 1977 that seat belts would not be required on school buses," said Robin Leeds, industry specialist and consultant for the National School Transportation Association (NSTA). At that time, buses underwent many structural improvements, including seat compartmentalization, a combination of high-back, well-padded and well-anchored seats, which proved to be capable of absorbing crash forces.
Some are skeptical that seat belts would make a difference. "How would we ensure students are wearing them or wearing them properly?" asks Chuck Hibbert, president of Hibbert Safe School and a consultant for the National School Safety and Security Services. "School administrators love kids and want to see the best for them," says Hibbert, "but seat belts are not the answer."
According to Leeds, the cost estimate for installing seat belts is an additional $10,000 per bus. "As a parent, you say they are worth whatever it costs," says Leeds. "As a policy maker, you need to look at needs and choices."