The fatal school bus crash yesterday in Arlington stoked a debate that has simmered across the nation for decades: Why don't school buses have seat belts?
Investigators have yet to determine whether such restraints might have protected the 9-year-old girl killed and other children injured in the collision of a large school bus and a garbage truck. But one fact is clear: The bus involved in the crash didn't have passenger seat belts. The same is true for nearly all of the thousands of school buses that crisscross the Washington region every day.
A small but persistent group of advocates argues that school buses should have the same safety restraint systems the government requires in smaller passenger vehicles and that schoolchildren should buckle up on a bus just as they do in a family car or minivan.
"It's common sense," said Alan Ross, a Connecticut dentist and spokesman for the National Coalition for School Bus Safety. "We know from our car experience that these restraints are life-saving."
But local school transportation officials who move tens of thousands of students every day in buses without seat belts defend their safety record and cite the latest national research to support their position. Riding a bus to school is safer than arriving on foot, by bicycle or in a parent's car, a 2002 study found.
"They're the safest vehicles on the street," said Tony Liberatore, who oversees a 1,300-bus fleet for Prince George's County public schools. "They're designed with the occupants in mind, no matter what size you are, in elementary or high school."
Over the years, seat belt advocates have gained ground in fits and starts. In 1987, New York became the first state to require two-point lap belts on new school buses, followed by New Jersey in 1992. Florida recently passed a similar law, and California has moved to require three-point shoulder belts on new buses.
"It might prevent injuries or fatalities," said Bob Austin, a school transportation expert at the California Department of Education. "You can't argue with that." He estimated that three-point belts would cost $1,500 to $1,800 per vehicle as the law takes effect for new large buses in July.
However, several school transportation experts said there is no consensus on the effectiveness of those laws.
"If it's something that made sense to everybody, we would have put them on all the buses 30 years ago," said Mike Martin, executive director of the National Association for Pupil Transportation, a group based in Albany, N.Y., that represents public school bus operators.
Federal law requires seat belts on small school buses weighing less than 10,000 pounds, some of which are used in the Washington region to transport pre-kindergarten or special education students. But the law does not apply to the large buses weighing 25,000 pounds or more that carry most students.
Asked why seat belts are not required on all school buses nationwide, officials with three national school transportation groups yesterday cited the 2002 study of school bus safety by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
That study found that lap belts could increase the risk of serious neck and abdominal injuries. Shoulder belts, the study concluded, "could provide some benefit, unless misused." Many young passengers, the study warned, were likely to wear shoulder belts incorrectly, slipping them behind their backs or under an arm. That, in turn, also could increase the risk of injury in a crash.
The study found that installing three-point safety belts might reduce bus seating capacity and drive up transportation costs, perhaps having the unintended consequence of reducing bus service for many children.
"Given that school buses are the safest way to and from school, even the smallest reduction in the number of bus riders could result in more children being killed or injured when using alternative forms of transportation," the study concluded.
Experts on school bus safety noted that the buses -- because of their size and the design of their passenger cabins -- have a far lower fatality rate in crashes than regular passenger vehicles.
The national study, reviewing data from 1990 through 2000, found an average of 10.2 crash deaths a year among those riding in school buses. A separate 2002 report from the National Research Council found that walking, riding a bicycle and traveling to school in a car were far riskier than riding in a school bus.
With tall, shock-absorbing backrests, compartmentalized seating and padded benches, "a school bus holds children like eggs in an egg crate," said Liz Neblett, a spokeswoman for the traffic safety administration. "It is the safest form of transportation on the road."
Staff writers V. Dion Haynes and Daniel de Vise contributed to this report.