The pilot study assessing the impact of the installation of lap/shoulder seat belts on a limited number of Alabama school buses is entering the final research year. The study, conducted through UA’s University Transportation Center for Alabama, will provide information about school buses with seat belts for possible adoption throughout the nation.
With 12 new school buses from 10 local school systems equipped with various types of three-point seat belts, the project involves four areas of research: review of national experiences and trends, alterations needed in the Alabama bus fleet if seat belt use is adopted, analysis of Alabama school bus crash data, and a cost-benefit analysis.
Each of the new school buses is outfitted with four ceiling-mounted video cameras allowing the research team to gather data on the level of restraint use, review the percentage of students using the belts and the percentage of students using the belts properly, and to investigate if using the belts keeps students from moving into the aisle and out of the protective compartment provided by the seats. The camera data will also reveal the benefit of having a bus aide to monitor students and will monitor time devoted to buckling at each stop.
“The first two years of our study have given us insight into the basic pattern of school bus seat belt use by Alabama’s schoolchildren. The third and final year will allow us to vary some of the basic parameters of the study to see how that affects results,” explained Dr. Jay Lindly, director of the University Transportation Center for Alabama. “For example, does changing the bus driver on a route affect seat belt usage, or does adding an aide to a route affect seat belt usage? That is what we will be testing this next year.”
Dr. Dan Turner, professor of civil engineering and the principal investigator of the research team, explained that the detailed results will not be released until the study is completed, so that the seatbelt use does not arbitrarily change as the result of a news article. That would make it impossible to measure the effectiveness of experimental safety treatments. The research team plans to change research protocol to make seat belt use even safer on Alabama school buses, and is excited about the anticipated progress of the project.
“There is a genuine excitement in trying different safety ideas to improve the use of belts in school buses,” said Turner. “Even though we cannot release actual findings at this time, we are looking to the future and anxious to reach the goals we set for ourselves two years ago.”
During the past year, student researchers have made 65,000 observations of pupils to determine whether they are wearing their seat belts. UTCA is pleased that the number of students wearing the belts properly has risen during the last year. In addition, there has been an increase in positive public perception concerning the installation of the belts.
“We consider it progress that more children are wearing the seat belts properly,” said Turner. “It is also worth noting that media clippings and articles reveal that the public is much more supportive of this research. In addition, we have been able to confirm many of the trends that we initially suspected, contributing to further progress of the project.”
UA is the first institution to carry out comprehensive research of this kind as there have been no previous large-scale, scientific studies conducted to assess the benefits of installing seat belts in school buses. Because of this, the National Transportation Safety Board, the National Highway Safety Administration and other national agencies have contacted UA’s research team and are awaiting the results of the study to determine whether or not the adoption of seat belts in school buses should be a nationwide trend.
“Every researcher dreams of working on a project of such significance, and this is UA’s opportunity to contribute on a national level,” said Turner. “Many federal and state agencies are awaiting our results because it will determine whether seat belts are required in school buses throughout the nation, which makes this study incredibly rewarding and exciting.”
In addition to using the results generated by UTCA’s research, national transportation agencies, including the National Association for Pupil Transportation, an organization aimed at supporting world-class professionals who provide safe and efficient pupil transportation for the nation’s children, has commended UA’s initiative and the action the state of Alabama has taken to ensure the safety of its students.
“‘NAPT issued a statement applauding Alabama on the launch of its study of the practical aspects of lap-shoulder belts in large school buses…’” read School Bus Fleet magazine. “‘This, along with crash tests and data analysis, is critical and long overdue to help put to rest the question of whether school buses should have lap-shoulder belts.’”
Turner is also pleased with the work ethic and dedication the students working with the study have shown. They are productive and determined in everything they do because they are aware that their work will make a difference in the lives of children.
“The students working on this project do everything right because they know that this study has to be done perfectly for the nation to be able to use our data,” said Turner. “Their dedication is inspirational as they work hard not only because this is a project of national significance, but more importantly because this is a project that will directly impact our nation’s children.”
After a tragic school bus accident in Huntsville, Gov. Bob Riley appointed a group to review laws in other states and interview seat-belt experts. The group recommended that Alabama test buses with seat belts. Alabama lawmakers then allocated more than $300,000 for a three-year pilot program in 10 school districts. The state purchased 12 new school buses with seat belts. The research grant was awarded to the University Transportation Center for Alabama.
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