However, during side-impact crashes and rollovers, compartmentalization provides “virtually no protection,” Johnson said in a telephone interview. “When passengers are involved in a rollover crash and are not belted, the effect can be similar to clothing tumbling in a dryer,” he said.
The National Transportation Safety Board, which investigates transportation accidents – including deadly school bus accidents – and makes safety recommendations to industry and government agencies, investigated the crashworthiness of school buses in 1999. It concluded that compartmentalization of seats made school buses safer, but not safe enough in high impact and rollover crashes. It recommended developing and mandating new safety standards that would better protect school bus passengers in all types of crashes.
In 2006, the NTSB put the school bus safety issue on its high-priority “Most Wanted” list of safety recommendations. In 2008, the NHTSA responded by mandating seat belts only on smaller school buses and requiring height changes to seat backs, among other items.
Many transportation authorities say adding seat belts to buses would reduce carrying capacity, increase costs and actually put kids in more danger.
Former U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Mary Peters told News21 that putting seat belts on school buses might seem like a “no-brainer” but she does not support the idea. Peters said that she believes requiring seat belts in school buses would decrease the passenger capacity of school buses, meaning that some students would have to walk to school, which she considers “inherently more dangerous.”
Indiana Mills and Manufacturing has come out with an alternative design for seat belt-equipped school bus seats that would not reduce the number of students on each school bus. Safeguard, a division of IMMI, produced FlexSeat, a 39-inch school bus seat equipped with seat belts. The seat can accommodate either three smaller children or two larger children, and the lap-to-shoulder belts are adjustable to size.
Messages filled with adoration and disbelief fill the memorial Facebook page of Vikas Parikh, a high school junior from Rocky Hill, Conn., who was killed in a school bus crash in 2010. The bus Parikh was riding in was not equipped with seat belts.
On Facebook, Parikh is remembered as an outstanding student in math and technology, with a beautiful smile. One wall post reads: You were supposed to do this world wonders.
Parikh was on a field trip traveling to a robotics competition when he was killed, therefore, his death and other data from his accident would not be an official school bus accident, and his death would not be reported in the FARS Encyclopedia as a school-bus related death.
Connecticut state Rep. Tony Guerrera, along with Parikh’s parents, believed that seat belts could have saved his life. They decided to bring the issue back to the state Legislature, even though similar bills promoting seat belts in school buses had failed more than 20 times, Guerrera said in a telephone interview.
Guerrera presented the bill just days after Parikh was killed. Lawmakers ultimately agreed that seat belts should be implemented on school buses but would not be mandatory. School districts that decide to install seat belts are eligible to receive 50 percent rebate of a sales tax. The law eliminates bus driver liability by making parents liable if the student does not wear a seat belt.
An increase in suspended or revoked drivers’ license fees will help fund the new law, Guerrera said.
Guerrera described his interaction with the Parikh family as “heartbreaking.”
“We wanted to … prevent any other family from enduring what the Parikh family went through,” he said.
A total of four people died in the two school bus crashes this year in Mississippi.
In the first crash, in February, trucker Gary Bailey, whose rig slammed into two school buses, died along with school bus passengers Steven Moss and Phyllis Graham, both teachers.
In the second crash, in April, 10-year-old Taliyah McRoy died.
The Mississippi Department of Education has not addressed adding seat belts to school buses in the wake of the two crashes, said Wendy Polk, director of communications for the department, in a telephone interview.
Polk noted that about 500,000 children ride Mississippi school buses, and while “every life that is lost is a tragedy,” the department has a “really good history” of providing “safe reliable transportation.”
Tony Dunn, a spokesman for the Mississippi Highway Patrol, said in a telephone interview that the trooper who investigated the accident believed Taliyah McRoy would have died even if she’d worn a seat belt because the child was sitting in a zone of “violent impact.”
But Alan Ross, the president of the National Coalition of School Bus Safety, which advocates for seat belts in school buses and signed the Center for Auto Safety petition, voiced skepticism.
Ross said he couldn’t comment specifically on the case, since he hadn’t seen an accident report, but he noted in a telephone interview: “Even if it is a direct impact you can’t say for sure that this little child would have perished … she would have had a better chance of surviving if she’d had that belt.”
The bottom line, Ross said, is that “we feel safety belts are useful in all circumstances. The only reason we don’t have them [in school buses] is because of politics and money.”
The death of Taliyah McRoy has put a hole in the hearts of McRoy family members. The family did not respond to repeated requests for interviews, but for months members of the family grieved openly on a Facebook page devoted to the memory of Taliyah.
On June 20, just a few days before Taliyah’s birthday, the child’s mother posted a note to her dead daughter: “Thinking about u everyday of every hour of every minute. wishing u were still here my sweet angel. love u so much just watch over us from the wonderful sky of heaven with your wonderful wings.”