By Michael Alison Chandler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 10, 2008
From now on, every school bus that Loudoun County buys will be equipped with a safety feature missing from most school vehicles in the Washington area: seat belts.
The Loudoun School Board voted unanimously Tuesday night to require seat belts on all new buses. Board members said they want to reinforce the buckle-up habit that children learn in family vehicles and set a higher safety standard in a county with intensifying congestion and many unpaved roads.
"We have a lot of buses moving around narrow roads at high speeds, and kids aren't strapped in," said board member Joseph M. Guzman (Sugarland Run), who sponsored the measure.
Studies have shown that large buses with high, padded seats are safer than the average family car, even without seat belts. Adding seat belts to buses poses cost and design questions, experts said. For those reasons, most large, standard-size school buses don't have them.
In November, U.S. Transportation Secretary Mary Peters proposed safety standards that would require small school buses -- those weighing less than 10,000 pounds -- to be equipped with lap-and-shoulder belts; current rules for those buses call for lap belts only. Peters also said school systems would be able to use federal highway safety funds to install seat belts on any bus.
Experts said the proposed federal regulations are adding momentum to a seat belt drive that has grown in recent years.
For "the parents of today's young children, every vehicle they have ever ridden in has had a lap shoulder belt. They just expect it to be there," said Charlie Gauthier, a school bus safety consultant and former executive director of the National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services.
J. Michael Lunsford, Loudoun school transportation director, said he gets calls every year from parents about the lack of seat belts. He expects it will take 13 years or longer to replace the entire 750-bus fleet with new vehicles with seat belts. Installing seats with three-point belts will add about $10,000 to the typical $90,000 price of a bus, Lunsford said.
Some local school systems have experience with bus seat belts. Arlington County has installed some seat belts on about half its school bus fleet for young riders headed to preschool programs.
Fairfax County began adding seat belts to its school bus fleet in the late 1980s but phased them out within a few years because many students did not wear them. Officials in Prince George's and Montgomery counties said that their standard buses do not have seat belts and that they are not proposing to add them.