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Decatur part of study for bus seat belts

By Bayne Hughes 340-2432

Decatur City Schools is one of 10 Alabama school systems selected to participate in a pilot program studying seat belts on school buses.

The Decatur school board approved the lease/purchase of 18 buses Tuesday at its monthly meeting. Superintendent Sam Houston said the state said it will pay for one of the $74,767 buses and install seat belts on it. The school system will own the bus at the end of the lease and will collect data for three years.

Joining Decatur in the study are Boaz, Dothan and Madison and Autauga, Calhoun, Conecuh, Elmore, Perry and Tuscaloosa counties.

Seat belts became an issue when a Lee High School bus transporting students to the Center for Technology in Huntsville on Nov. 20, 2006, careened over a concrete guard rail on Interstate 565 and crashed nose-first onto Church Street about 30 feet below, killing four students.

The bus was carrying 43 students, and at least 14 plus the bus driver were hospitalized. A Huntsville Police spokesman said at the time that the students were "just tossed around in the bus."

Most of Alabama's 8,500 full-size school buses do not have seat belts for the passengers, and only 200 school systems nationwide require them. Opponents say seat belts on school buses create more problems than they solve, including making an injury more likely in a fender-bender and making it more difficult to exit a bus after a wreck.

School buses went to compartmentalization — that is, using closely spaced and high-backed, padded seats, in 1977. The idea behind compartmentalization is keep the passenger in a confined, padded area to limit the possibility of injury.

At the time of the Lee wreck, Decatur Transportation Director Bonnie Cowan worried that bus drivers would have a difficult time getting students to keep their seat belts on while the bus is moving. She said that would require buses to hire driver aides for every trip at a considerable expense.

Houston told the board Tuesday that he was a "little reluctant" to participate in the study until the state said it plans to use a new seat belt technology that "answers my questions." The seat belts aren't the traditional 3-point belts used in most passenger vehicles.

He said the bus will have Safeguard Integrated Seats that feature a five-point seat belt. This seat belt has straps over both shoulders and hips, meeting at a center point at the waist.

School board member Dwight Jett Jr., returning to the board for his first meeting after spending a year in Iraq, said the military uses similar seat belts. He said the seat belts keep a person strapped in and secure but are much easier to exit because they require only a quick turn of a center button for the straps to fall away.

Three-point seat belts are a concern for small children. State law requires a child to use a booster seat until age 5 or 40 pounds.

"They're (five-point belts) better designed for different body sizes," Jett said. "That way it won't matter if it's a teenager or a first-grader. Either one will get the same quality protection."

Decatur is leasing two 48 passenger mini-buses and 16 72-passenger buses for 10 years from Transportation South. Region Finance gave the school system a 3.88 percentage rate, which will cost the school system $159,658 a year.

The school system is replacing several old buses and expanding its fleet so it can offer a full bus service for students in elementary, middle school and ninth grade at the start of the 2008-09 school year.

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