Indiana school bus crash renews debate over seat belts

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INDIANAPOLIS - Several students were injured Tuesday in a school bus crash near Mount Comfort. Dozens were rushed to the hospital, but all survived.

None of them were restrained in safety belts, and the accident raises the ongoing question of whether school buses should have seat belts.

In Indiana, only 3,330 out of nearly 16,000 are equipped with belts. IMMI, a Westfield maker of the Safeguard lap and shoulder belt restraints for school buses, calls it simple common sense.

"They leave the hospital in an infant child seat and we teach them to buckle up and convince them to do so through high school, yet they get on the school bus twice a day without buckling up. The number one thing we can teach our children is that the best way to protect yourself is with a lap and shoulder belt," said James Johnson, Safeguard vice president of sales.

But opponents argue that school buses are the safest vehicles on the street and that higher seatbacks and padded frames help absorb impacts in a crash. Indiana doesn't require that buses be equipped with seat belts other than for the driver. For many schools, it comes down to money and the $10,000 to $15,000 necessary to equip a single bus with shoulder and lap belts.

"We are always in favor of anything that increases safety for kids. It's now just a matter of dollars not matching what we can get done," said Mike LaRocco, Indiana Department of Education.

But tell that to these terrified parents or others with children not yet in school.

"It's scary. My kids will be on a school bus soon. They're not there yet," said Brian Burkhardt, Westfield.

"Kids need seat belts on school buses so they don't get out of their seats and move around. Seat belts keep them in their seats and safe," said Corey Kirlin, Carmel.

Statistically, the school bus is the safest way for children to get to and from school, but with test crash video showing the benefits of belts and after scenes like this, advocates say that safety on buses must trump the added costs to schools.