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Paying for seat belts on school buses: How much will it cost?

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It’s a question many parents simply can’t answer – why aren’t most school buses equipped with seat belts?

It’s a question Natasha Watkins wants answered. Her son Michael broke his leg in a March 2012 bus crash that killed her daughter’s six-year old friend, Donasty Smith.

“I got up that morning and put my kids on the bus just like any normal morning,” said Watkins. “My heart really goes out to her mother because I don’t know what it’s like to lose a child.”

“It felt like a monster truck just ran over your toe,” said Michael. “It happened so fast, they found me in the back.”

“He went under the seat,” said Natasha. “He was two seats back from the front of the bus. He ended up in the back of the bus under a seat… I just feel like if some of those kids, if they would have just had something to hold them in those seats.”

Watkins and other victims have been advocating for seat belts on school buses ever since. Last year, a report from the National Transportation Safety Board found that ‘properly worn seat belts make the bus safer, especially in severe side impact crashes and rollovers.’

“All of our research shows lap and shoulder belts are the best way to protect children to and from school,” said James Johnson, whose Westfield-based company, IMMI, designs and manufactures the Safeguard seat belt system for school buses.

There are some schools that use the seat belts, including Heritage Christian, and Bartholomew County. But most Indiana school districts do not.

“Parents are always wondering why we don’t have seat belts on school buses,” said Dr. Joseph O’Neil, a safety advocate and developmental pediatrician with Riley Hospital for Children at IU Health. “It depends on how severe the crash is. The majority of crashes are from the front or the back… but in a side impact crash or a rollover compartmentalization doesn’t work as well and that’s where our concerns are.”

Those concerns are shared by state Rep. John Bartlett, D-Indianapolis, who tried for a third straight year to pass legislation requiring seat belts on newly purchased buses. But again this year, his legislation didn’t make it into law.

“So many babies get on the school bus every day and we’re not protecting them,” said Bartlett.

So why wouldn’t they want to do more to protect our children?

“It’s not a question about safety,” said Johnson. “It’s about money.”

And at a cost of anywhere from $7,000 to $15,000 per bus, it’s money most school districts can’t come up with.

“We shouldn’t be able to put a dollar sign on it,” said Watkins. “It shouldn’t be a question of ‘Do we have the money?’ It should be let’s get this done. These children have to be protected, they’re our future.”

But there’s another side to this too. Some current and former bus drivers told us they don’t think seat belts would be a good idea if they needed to evacuate the bus, or if there were a fire.

“In my opinion seat belts would be a hazard in the long run,” said one driver.