Florida school bus fatal calls attention to seat belt debate

Friday, November 19th 2004, 8:25 am

By: News On 6

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. (AP) _ A fatal school bus crash has revived the debate in Florida about whether seat belts should be mandatory _ and what kind of protection they provide.

Diana Kautz, a freshman at Royal Palm Beach High School, wasn't wearing a lap belt when her school bus collided with a pickup truck and rolled over last week. She was ejected and killed.

``Just like when we as parents are going to work, we have a lap belt on and a shoulder harness. The same should be available to students on school buses,'' said Democratic state Rep. Irv Slosberg. His proposed bill last year to require shoulder belts on school buses was never heard.

Palm Beach County School Board members have said they want to review the issue but will wait until an investigation of the crash is complete. At least four other states, including New York and California, require belts in school buses.

The school bus in last week's crash was carrying nine students when deputies believe the bus driver ran a stop sign and hit a pickup. No one was wearing a seat belt. The bus rolled over several times and landed on its side in the grass. Its driver remains hospitalized in serious condition.

Florida began requiring all new school buses to have seat belts in 1999, but wearing them is not a requirement. The problem is exacerbated because many belts are stuck between the seats, forcing riders to untangle the belt just to get it on.

Slosberg insists the law should be changed to add shoulder belts to all buses _ and make wearing them mandatory.

The safety issue is not so clear-cut.

A report by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration found lap belts used in combination with a shoulder strap ``could provide some benefit, unless misused.'' Lap belts alone can actually increase the chance of serious neck and abdominal injuries, the 2002 report said.

The National Transportation Safety Board says school buses are so safe because of their large size and design improvements that seat belts could harm more children than they save.

Only about one third of 1 percent of all fatal traffic crashes in the United States are linked to school transportation, according to the NHTSA.

In Florida, the vast majority of students involved in school bus accidents escape with only minor injuries, if any. But Slosberg said no matter how safe school buses can be in a crash, lap belts combined with shoulder harnesses would make them safer. He estimated the changes would cost about $4,500 for every bus.

``The bottom line is we have to do it right. We can't do this on the cheap,'' he said.

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