Should seat belts be required on school buses?
The question comes to the forefront again after several children were hospitalized after their school bus plunged 30 feet over an embankment in the Maple River.
FARGO — As children left school Monday, Sept. 26, the man who oversees school safety for the state has one message for those kids to take home.
"A school bus really is one of the safest ways to get a kid to and from home to the school," said Steve Snow of the North Dakota Department of Public Instruction.
He points to a statistic by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration that says students are 70 times more likely to arrive at school alive on a school bus.
That study says an average of six students are killed each year in school bus crashes.
"The compartmentalize seats, where again the seat height, the energy impact, the energy absorption of the seat, the way they are set up to make it as safe as it possibly can be," he explained.
Federal regulators have raised concerns in recent years about children being tossed around in rollover and T-bone style crashes, like when a bus collided with a train a few years ago in Lidgerwood, North Dakota.
All the students survived.
However, studies have shown outfitting buses with seat belts may not be a wise investment.
"I always hate to put an expense when I talk about child safety, but I do know there are expenses if you are trying to retrofit an older bus with some of these newer safety features. Without a significant impact on the safety of the student, there is a concern there on return on investment," explained Snow.
With the investigation still ongoing, it's unclear what type of difference seat belts would have played in the Enderlin, North Dakota, school bus crash last Friday.
The driver and several students went to the hospital after the bus went off the road, through a guardrail, and fell 30 feet into the Maple River.
Everyone is expected to be OK.
The driver reportedly said he doesn't remember what happened.
While the state does not track how many districts use seat belts on buses, the Midway School District installed them seven years ago. That same year, the federal government recommended all school buses across the country be equipped with three-point seat belts. Some districts argue that would provide some serious operation challenges.
"Your younger kids, your elementary, kindergarten kids, how do they operate the seat belts, can they get in and out of them efficiently, are all the kids wearing them, the kids that are wearing them are being held in place, but the kids who aren't are being tossed around," said Snow.
Eight states have some sort of law requiring seat belt use on school buses. Three of those have some flexibility based on finances.
Iowa requires all new school buses have lap/shoulder belts.
The North Dakota Department of Public Instruction says if a federal mandate comes down requiring seat belts, or if the state Legislature passes a bill, they will fully support it.