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School buses safer in future

Seatback rules to be beefed up

By Joan Lowy
Associated Press / October 16, 2008
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WASHINGTON - Smaller school buses will have to be equipped with lap-and-shoulder seat belts for the first time and larger buses will have higher seatbacks under a government rule announced yesterday.

The seat belts will only have to be installed in new buses weighing 5 tons or less, and the requirement will not take effect until 2011. These smaller school buses are already required to have lap belts, but not the safer, harness-style belts. There is no seat belt requirement for larger buses.

Transportation Secretary Mary E. Peters said she stopped short of requiring seat belts for larger buses because that could limit the number of children that can squeeze into seats, forcing some to travel in ways not as safe.

School districts sometimes expect as many as three younger children to share a bus seat, but if there are only two belts per seat fewer children can ride.

"We wanted to make sure that any measures we put forth don't needlessly limit the capacity of the buses and then force that school or that school district to have more children walking, riding with parents, biking, et cetera," Peters said in an interview.

Schools buy about 2,500 smaller school buses each year, the Transportation Department said. The buses seat about 16 to 20 students. Larger buses can carry more than 50 students.

The new rule also includes a performance standard for seat belts on new, larger buses so that schools that want to voluntarily add belts will have guidance on what belts are best, Peters said. Providing a common standard could also lower the cost of adding belts, she said.

The Transportation Department estimates it will cost about $6.1 million a year to equip new, smaller buses with the three-point seat belts and higher seat backs, and $3.6 million a year to equip new, larger buses with higher seat backs.

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