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FL school districts not taking feds' advice on school bus seat belt safety

Most school buses don't have 3-point seat belts
Posted at 4:22 PM, Dec 13, 2017
and last updated 2017-12-15 10:36:50-05

The latest images from Highlands County are a reminder of the critical cargo that can easily fall victim to a morning Florida commute.  Just after 7:30 Wednesday morning, a school bus traveling north on US 27 near Lake Placid was rear-ended by a tractor-trailer.  At least 22 people were taken to the hospital, most were students and all had non-life threatening injuries.

"It's remarkable that were as few injuries as there were," said Dr. Cary Pigman who treated 20 of the students at a nearby hospital.

We now know most of the students on board were also not wearing a seatbelt. 

At least 22 taken to hospital in school bus crash involving tractor-trailer in Highlands County

“I wish more were wearing them,” said Pigman.

While Florida requires seatbelts on school buses built since 2001, it does not require students wear them, nor does it mandate what kind of seatbelts need to be provided other than lap belts.

The Highlands County school district says the bus involved in Wednesday's crash had 2-point seat belts.

“We will be sitting down with law enforcement, the transportation department, and other key staff to review all of the facts as it relates to this accident.  It is through such meetings that recommendations would come forth,” said Highlands County school spokesman Andrew Lethbridge.

In 2012, 9-year-old Aaron Beauchamp was killed when the two-point lap belt he was wearing ripped apart during a St. Lucie County school bus collision with a semi-truck.

After studying how a three-point belt may have made a difference, in 2015 the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration formally recommended all school buses be equipped with both lap and shoulder belts for best protection.

But in Florida, school buses equipped with three-point seat belts are far from the norm.

In St. Lucie County, where Aaron was killed, the district is including three-point seatbelts in all new buses.  So far 75 school buses in its fleet are equipped with both lap and shoulder belts.

In Palm Beach County, 40 school buses are fully equipped with lap and shoulder belts, according to a district spokesperson.  Originally, the district's transportation director told us there were about 150 buses equipped with three-point seatbelts.  The district later corrected that number a few days after our story aired.

While school buses in Hillsborough, Polk, Collier, Lee, Miami-Dade and Pasco counties are equipped with lap belts only, several school districts including Miami-Dade and Polk counties are considering three-point belts in the future.   

A spokesman with Charlotte County schools on the west coast of Florida told us the district will start purchasing school buses with both lap and shoulder belts this year and has a long-range plan to offer school buses only with three-point seat belts.  In Sarasota, new buses ordered this year will also be equipped with three-point seatbelts, according to a district spokesperson.  

Whereas in Collier County, the district still maintains two-point lap belts on its school buses while administrators study the effectiveness of three-point belts.  Some critics suggest three-point seat belts may pose more danger to students in the event the school bus becomes submerged in water.  

With so many Florida roadways near water, Collier County school leaders are still looking at the potential danger that may come with three-point belts.

In addition, cost is also a factor that has kept some Florida school districts from adding lap and shoulder belts to its bus fleets.  Estimates put three-point seatbelts as a feature that could increase the cost of a school bus up to $10,000 more per bus.

Last year U.S. Congressman Charlie Crist introduced the BUS act of 2017.  It would require all school buses be manufactured with both lap and shoulder belts.  So far no action has been taken on the legislation.