Officials with the National Transportation Safety Board say school buses are safer than cars, even if they are not equipped with seat belts.
The Board dissected a report on a fatal 2012 bus crash in Chesterfield and said at a hearing on Tuesday that the lap belts had saved the lives of many of the children. But in most accidents, the board said that the special design and cushioning in school buses normally are sufficient to protect children from harm.
The board's investigators created a computer simulation of the crash and surmised the one child who was killed was not wearing her belt when the bus was broadsided by a Mack truck.
But in head-on and rear collisions, the Board found that schoolbuses without seatbelts are generally safe.
"In about a month, it will be back to school for most of our nation's schoolchildren," said NTSB Chairwoman Deborah Hersman. "Riding a bus is the safest way to get to school and home again."
Only six states mandate seatbelts in schoolbuses - including New Jersey - and the board recommends other states and school districts consider installing them as an extra safety precaution, Hersman said.
"School buses are extremely safe," said Dr. Kristin Poland, an expert with the NTSB who spoke at the hearing. She said the buses restrain children through the compartmentalization of "energy-absorbing" seats and seatbacks and by cushioning.
However, lap belts and restraints with shoulder harnesses are very effective in cases where a bus is hit on its side by a large vehicle, like a truck or a train, she said. An in-depth analysis of the Chesterfield crash and a similar fatal accident involving a school bus and truck in Port Lucie, Florida, showed the role the seatbelts played in saving the children's lives.
In the Chesterfield case, Isabelle Tezsla, an 11-year-old triplet, was killed and her two sisters were injured when the bus driver failed to yield to a truck at a rural intersection. Twelve other children were also injured when the bus was struck and then forced into a traffic-light pole in the Feb. 16 accident. The children were on their way to their elementary school at the time.
Hersman said that the Board decided to analyze the accident so that it could "identify vulnerabilities" and make recommendations to prevent future collisions.