At least six states have laws requiring seat belts on school buses, and though Mississippi won't join those states this year, a study is planned for the summer to look at the issue more closely.
State Rep. John L. Moore, a Brandon Republican and chairman of the House Education Committee, said there are too many unanswered questions about seat belts on buses.
"The national data is very confused," he said, adding a governor's study came back inconclusive a few years ago. "But there could be more harm than good. What's always been an underriding concern is what do you do if a school bus turns upside down with 45 kids strapped in?"
Sam Bailey, transportation director for the Biloxi School District, believes school buses are safer without the belts.
"The seats are designed with such padding and framing that should a bus get into a front-end or rear-end impact, the padding safeguards the child," he said. "It's like a catcher's mitt, there's somewhat of a collapse to the seat so it catches the child."
The bus drivers wear seat belts because they aren't included in that protected area.
Data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration backs up Bailey's case, calling school buses "one of the safest forms of transportation in the United States."
According to the NHTSA, buses are safer than other vehicles because of a "protective envelope" created by seats that are placed close together, and energy-absorbing seat backs. The large size of a bus also distributes crash forces differently from regu
lar vehicles. Because of this, the group estimates, buses are seven times safer than cars or trucks. Their studies show more than 42,000 people are killed in crashes each year, but an average of six children are killed in school bus wrecks annually.
Carrolyn Hamilton, superintendent of the Long Beach School District, said she can't quite make up her mind on the issue.
"I'm torn," she said. "But I worry that if we had to get young children out in an emergency, would they be able to unbuckle themselves? That's my concern."
In Harrison County, Superintendent Henry Arledge was also unsure about the good that would come from installing seat belts.
"It's hard to judge which is best," he said. "It's really according to the wreck, but there's pros and cons."
In Mississippi, buses that weigh less than 10,000 pounds are required to have seat belts. Those smaller buses that generally transport special-needs students do have seat belts, and for handicapped students, their wheelchairs are locked into place. Another Mississippi law prohibits buses exceeding 45 miles per hour on the routes to and from school and 50 miles per hour on the highway or interstate.
The current legislation
Tom Miles, the main backer of seat belts in the Legislature, said a task force created under Nathan's Law, a school bus safety package enacted in 2011, will study the issue and report back to the Legislature.
He said he hoped they could get a bill passed next year to put seat belts in all new buses. That, he said, would be much cheaper than retrofitting buses already on the road.
"All the larger states, the ones that transport the most students have them," he said. "Kids are 50 percent less likely to be hurt in a wreck if they have seat belts."
He also said in November, the federal government required seat belts in all passenger buses and it's probably only a matter of time before they're mandated for school buses.
One Coast lawmaker said he hasn't heard anything from area school officials about seat belts.
"I'm on the Transportation Committee and we had a hearing on this issue this past summer," said Rep. Manly Barton, R-Moss Point. "I haven't made up my mind on this, mainly because there is so much information that supports both sides of the issue. Common sense would indicate that installing seat belts would be safer, but there is a lot of information about new seat and bus designs."
A spokesman for the Department of Education said he hadn't even heard of the lone seat belt bill that died in committee.
But its Office of Healthy Schools lays out a lengthy argument against them. It says passengers are safer without seat belts:
"The occupant in a crash moves freely into the padded seat in front of them thus spreading crash forces over a large part of their body," it says in part. "The transfer of energy to the tissues of the body causes injury. If all of the crash force is limited to a small area of the body, then the amount of injury to that part of the body is much greater.
"If a student is in a lap belt only, then the upper body will move forward and the only part of the body to make contact with the seat in front of them will be the head/neck region. As in football, you never want to make contact with the top of your head while making a tackle; you also never want to make contact with the seat in front of the occupant with the top of their head."
In Louisiana, a school bus seat belt law was passed and set to take effect in 2004, but buses remain beltless today as the legislature has not provided money to districts to implement the law.
Safety without the belts
Bailey said in the Biloxi district, like most others, there's protocol in place for making sure students stay safe on the buses. Disciplinary action can be taken against those who don't stay seated and face forward. Riders are also forbidden to eat on the bus, as it presents a choking hazard.
"And all of our drivers go through rigorous training and certification," he said. "Then they have to be re-certified every two years.
"But our main focus needs to be the public," Bailey said. "We need to make sure the public is operating safely around our school buses."