Fatal Indianapolis school bus crash re-ignites seat belt debate


With two dead and two more critically injured, Monday's bus crash in Indianapolis is a stark contrast to another crash just a few weeks ago.

That bus veered off the road and flipped over near Chicago. It was full of students but there were no deaths and not a single serious injury. The students on the bus in Illinois were wearing seat belts. The students on the Indianapolis school bus were not - because it didn't have any.

It ignites an old debate in Indiana that began more than a decade ago.

In 2000, state lawmakers first proposed mandatory seat belts in all new Indiana school buses. The proposal didn't go anywhere. Since then, six other states have passed laws requiring seat belts on school buses. In light of today's tragedy, some say Indiana should do the same.

"Eighty-three percent of parents surveyed nationwide think lap belts and shoulder belts should be mandated," said James Johnson, a vice president of IMMI. "The demand nationwide is growing. California requires lap-shoulder belts now."

IMMI is a Westfield company makes special school bus seats that have seat belts built right in. Johnson says they really work.

"In every test we've ever conducted here, lap and shoulder belts reduce injuries and fatalities by forty-five percent. All of our testing here at IMMI indicated similar results for lap and shoulder belt uses in buses," said Johnson.

The mother of a boy who says he should have been on the bus Monday also wants change.

"It's not safe," said Catherine Ball. "After what's happened today, I hope they do something about it."

The National Transportation Safety Board says the design of school buses already provides plenty of protection without seat belts. Crash test video shows how high padded seats on school buses are designed to protect students during a head-on crash.

But most experts agree in side impact and rollover crashes, seats alone do not provide enough protection. Onboard video of a school bus crash in Ohio shows real children in a real crash - an entire busload of kids violently thrown from their seats.

So why don't more schools use seat belts in buses? The answer is money.

"We can hardly fund our schools now, let alone add on that extra expense," said Michael LaRocco, Director of Transportation for the Indiana Department of Education.

The state's school transportation director says it would cost $160 million to equip all Indiana schools buses with seat belts - money that schools just don't have.

"Nationwide, by putting them on all school buses, we might save one or two lives in a normal year. That's really hard to say we want to take those dollars away from education to do something that already is the safest ground transportation on the planet," LaRocco said.

Nationally, the number of injuries and deaths from school bus accidents is very low, and school bus transportation is considered very safe. But is it safe enough? And is extra protection worth the extra cost? Tragedies like this keep that debate alive.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration still says school buses are the safest way to transport children to school.

In the past ten years only one-third of one percent of all fatal crashes involved a school bus.

On average, school bus crashes kill 139 people each year, but only 25 of them are actually on the buses. The other 114 are in other vehicles.

Students are about 50 times more likely to arrive at school alive if they take the bus than if they drive themselves or ride with friends.

The NHTSA also says a child is also much safer riding the bus than being driven to school by their parents.

About the crash

Thomas R. Spencer II, 60, was driving the bus. He was killed, along with a five-year-old passenger, Donasty Smith.

Miller Transportation based in Louisville, Kentucky employed Spencer.

Like all bus drivers, Spencer was required to have a CDL (Commercial Drivers License). Miller Transportation spokesman Phil Isenbarger says Spencer had been driving with the company since July 2010.   Prior to coming to Miller, Spencer drove school buses for First Student.

The bridge the bus crashed into was built in 1917, and was inspected just last month, according to CSX Communications Director, Carla Groleau. According to Groleau, CSX inspects its bridges annually. The bridge was also inspected Monday morning following the incident.

The bus was most recently inspected in January. No problems were found.