Meridian schools may rethink bus belts

'If we could save a life of a single child, it would be worth it,' the superintendent says.

STATESMAN STAFFDecember 6, 2013 

Large school buses are one of the safest forms of transportation because of their weight, closely-spaced seats, energy-absorbing seat backs and compartmentalized passengers, federal officials say.

Only a few states require seat belts in large (over 10,000 pounds) school buses - and Idaho isn't one of them, said Melissa McGrath, communications director for the Idaho Department of Education.

States that require seat belts are: California, Florida, Louisiana, New Jersey, New York and Texas.

School districts in Idaho may opt to install seat belts and can receive reimbursements from the state, McGrath said. Some districts contract for bus service, while others, including Kuna, operate their own buses.

Last year, a legislator asked state education officials to find out how much it would cost to outfit the 2,862 buses used for transporting students to and from Idaho public schools. The cost, not including installation, was $14 million, McGrath said.

SUPERINTENDENT: 'WE WILL ALL SCRUTINIZE IT'

The state's largest school district will re-evaluate whether it should put seat belts on buses following the Thursday accident in which an 11-year-old from Kuna was killed.

"I am sure we will all scrutinize it," said Linda Clark, Meridian superintendent.

The district operates about 250 buses and drives about 3 million miles a year.

Simply sticking seat belts on buses won't solve the problem, Clark said. Someone will have to make sure they are being used, which can be a management issue for a driver with a bus full of 60 students.

She anticipates making a report to her board, but didn't say when.

SCHOOL BUS CRASH DEATHS RARE IN U.S.

About 0.34 percent of fatal motor vehicle crashes nationwide from 2002 to 2011 were related to school transportation, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Of that fraction, 7 percent of the deaths were of occupants of school buses or other school-related transportation. On average, 17 school-age children died each of those years in school transportation-related crashes. Just five each year, on average, were inside buses.

So far this school year, Idaho districts have reported 31 school bus accidents. Last year, 97 were reported across the state; 113 accidents were reported in Idaho in 2011-12.

Based on data for the 2012-13 school year, 105,059 students of 287,247 students enrolled statewide traveled to and from school on buses. That was almost 37 percent of students in Idaho public schools.

PRIOR SCHOOL BUS DEATHS IN IDAHO

It appears the last time a student died in a school bus crash in Idaho was in October of 1977, although state officials were unable to find that information in their records.

Two Nampa boys died from injuries suffered in the 1977 crash between a school bus and a county dump truck, according to Associated Press reports in the Lewiston Morning Tribune. The boys were Patrick Larimer, 14, and Stephen Hennis, 15.

In a 1969 crash, Michael A. Rea, a 6-year-old Boise boy, was killed and 60 others were injured when a semitruck and trailer hit a bus at Chinden Boulevard and Glenwood Street, according to a Statesman article.

Before Thursday, the last time anyone riding in a school bus died was apparently in 2002, when a driver died on a bus in Kellogg.

Katy Moeller, Bill Roberts and Nate Poppino contributed.

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