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A chance to buckle up for safety

Waltham installs seat belts on buses

By Lisa Kocian
Globe Staff / August 28, 2011

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Some Waltham students started their lessons a little early last week, practicing how to get themselves in and out of the new lap and shoulder seat belts that are now on all the district’s school buses.

Students in all grades and their parents were invited to board school buses parked at various campuses to try out the belts in preparation for the first day of school Wednesday.

Waltham appears to be the first public school district in the state to adopt the safety measure for all its buses, although several districts, including Newton, already use lap belts.

“They’re awesome, I think,’’ said Nataliya Lavrenchik, who boarded a bus at the Whittemore School last week with her son Alexander, who is starting kindergarten.

“It prevents kids from walking around on the bus,’’ she said, after helping Alexander buckle up. “He’s my first going to kindergarten, so I’m freaking out about him going on the bus in the first place.’’

“Try it yourself,’’ she told him in Russian. And then, “Good job.’’

The School Committee voted unanimously in March to support the seat belt initiative, which a local group, Waltham4Seatbelts, had been promoting for about two years.

The new safety system will add about $105,000 to the cost of leasing the buses this school year, officials said.

It’s up to parents to decide whether to tell their children to wear the new seat belts. Waltham can’t require students to use them, said John Pinzone, fiscal coordinator for the school district.

“We’re just trying to give families and students an option,’’ he said.

There are no plans for extra adults, aside from the bus driver, to be on the buses at the start of the school year, he said, unless principals from individual schools hop aboard as they sometimes do in the first days.

Police officer Ann Frassica, the safety officer for the schools, said bus drivers are not responsible for buckling or unbuckling students.

North America Central School Bus, which has the contract to provide buses for Waltham, was training its drivers last week, said Frank Ciccarella, director of safety and training for the company.

Drivers have to know how to use the seat belts just as they would any other piece of safety equipment, such as the seat-belt cutter or fire extinguisher, he said.

Driver training is 31 hours, and about one more hour will be added to cover seat belts, said Ciccarella.

The Joliet, Ill.-based company has about 150 contracts transporting around 200,000 students daily, he said, but this will be the first contract involving seat belts.

“It’s going to be a learning process for everybody,’’ said Ciccarella.

The seat belts look much like the ones used in cars. The only obvious difference is a shoulder adjustment, a “slide’’ that allows the shoulder portion of the belt to fit high school students as well as elementary students.

The school district was working last week with Waltham4Seatbelts on ways to educate students and parents.

Rachel Learned, the advocacy group’s chairwoman, said she hopes the schools can replicate what other districts around the country have done by bringing in practice seats for students to try at school.

“We’re very excited, of course, that our children will be having the option to buckle up on school buses,’’ she said.

Waltham has been borrowing a number of ideas from other districts, said Susan M. Nicholson, the system’s new superintendent. Last week, Waltham provided translators on the buses, at the suggestion of another school, she said.

Her department was also working last week on a list of answers to “frequently asked questions’’ to hand out to students and parents.

Although the decision to add seat belts was made before Nicholson started her job here, the mother of three adult children said she thinks it was a good move.

“It was always a question I had as a parent,’’ she said. “I admire Waltham for being in the forefront of making it happen.’’

Not everyone is convinced seat belts are necessary.

“School buses are one of the safest forms of transportation on the road,’’ said Bonnie Bastian, spokeswoman for First Student, a Cincinnati-based transportation company that has contracts with a number of area districts, including Boston, Newton, and Westborough.

Although the company has seat belts on a small number of its 57,000 school buses, she said, there isn’t enough research to determine whether the belts make buses safer.

“There are so many factors that need to be studied in terms of putting seat belts on buses,’’ said Bastian. “We really utilize the safety features they have built in now, which is compartmentalization.’’

Learned disagrees. She said compartmentalization, the high backs of the seats that are meant to keep students from being propelled during a crash, are really only effective in front-end crashes. Seat belts are crucial during a rollover or side-impact crash, she said.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration continues to work to improve school bus safety, according to David Strickland, the administrator for the agency.

“Beginning this fall, all newly manufactured small school buses sold in the United States will be equipped with lap/shoulder seat belts; and, since Oct. 21, 2009, all new large school buses have higher seat backs to provide even better crash protection for occupants,’’ he said in an e-mailed statement. “Although no mode of transportation is completely without risk, school buses continue to be the safest way to transport students - even safer than their parents’ or guardians’ cars.’’