MONTGOMERY, Ala. - School buses are safe enough without seat belts and students in many cases ignore a requirement to wear them, according to a study in Alabama released Monday that found the straps would save the life of about one child every eight years.
The study was ordered by Alabama Gov. Bob Riley after four students were killed in 2006 when a school bus without seat belts nose-dived from an overpass in Huntsville.
Following that accident, federal transportation officials required new, smaller school buses to be equipped with lap-and-shoulder belts by 2011. Larger buses are to have higher seat backs.
The three-year study showed putting belts on most buses is expensive - about $11,000 to $15,000 per bus, and requires larger seats, reducing the number of students who can sit on the bus. In many cases, the study found that students don't put on the belts and drivers complained they couldn't see the children.
"It's six to eight times safer than riding to school with their momma in a car," said Dan Turner, a retired University of Alabama professor who led the study. "That's hard to tell someone who has their precious baby in the car."
Turner said the study was expected to guide school transportation officials around the country. Georgia officials had said following a recent accident they were waiting for the study's results before deciding on whether to recommend seat belts on buses.
Officials with the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration didn't immediately say what implications the study would have.
"Our message has been that buses are already very safe," said Jonathan Adkins, spokesman for the national Governors Highway Safety Association.
The superintendent for Huntsville City Schools, Ann Roy Moore, agreed.
"I always felt that unless there was a catastrophic accident, the students were safe on the buses as they are," Moore said.
The study provided buses with seat belts for 10 Alabama school systems and determined school buses were the safest way for students to get to school, partly because of the vehicles' height, size and design. In effect, students are compartmentalized in their seats.
In Alabama, there are 7,341 buses on the road, driving more than 457,000 miles a day and there have only been five deaths since 1977, including the Huntsville accident, Turner said.
Researchers said it would be more cost-effective to spend money making the process of loading students on and off the buses safer. Turner said most deaths occur when children are getting off the bus, crossing roads or crowding around the bus to board it.
"If the money is available, it would be much better spent training drivers, teachers and students," Turner said.