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Riley wants probe into whether buses need seat belts

By Bob Johnson
Associated Press Writer

MONTGOMERY — With the state still stunned by a horrific school bus wreck that killed four teenagers in Huntsville, Gov. Bob Riley wants to know if seat belts on school buses would make children safer.

Riley asked a committee Wednesday to determine the answer to that question, hopefully before the start of the 2007 session of the Alabama Legislature on March 6.

Riley convened the committee of education, transportation and public safety officials following the Nov. 20 accident when a bus carrying 40 Lee High School students hit a guardrail on a Huntsville interstate and plunged roughly 30 feet to the street below, killing four students.

National debate

The accident has initiated a national debate on whether school systems should be required to equip buses with seat belts. Joe Lightsey, the director of pupil transportation for the Alabama Board of Education, said only Florida, California, New York and New Jersey currently require seat belts on all school buses.

"I hope your focus will be on the question do seat belts make the buses safer. If it doesn't, I want someone to explain why," Riley told committee members, holding their first meeting Wednesday in a conference room at the state Capitol.

The governor said the focus initially will be on the safety issue and not on other issues, such as how much it would cost, how to go about installing belts on buses across Alabama's 67 counties and whether to use lap belts or harness belts.

He said those issues will be dealt with if it's determined seat belts will make children safer.

"We are the ultimate protector of children when they get on that bus," Riley told the committee, headed by state schools Superintendent Joe Morton.

Public hearing

The committee decided to hold a two-day public hearing in Huntsville — tentatively set for Feb. 5-6 — to hear comments from highway safety and transportation experts from across the country as well as from citizens.

Committee members said they would use those comments to prepare a report for Riley.

Lightsey told board members experts nationally have been divided on the question of whether the belts make school buses safer.

Lightsey said proponents of belts have argued they would
reduce the number of deaths and serious injuries in accidents, would make buses safer
if they roll over and would
force students to stay in their seats, which would improve behavior and reduce driver distraction.

But he said opponents say the belts could make buses more dangerous and that studies of some fatal bus accidents have shown seat belts would not have helped.

Lightsey said opponents also argue that modern school buses have high backs and padded seats that are designed to protect students without the use of belts.

Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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