HOUSTON - The horrific school bus crash in Chattanooga, Tennessee, that killed five children and landed the driver behind bars has a lot of parents asking how safe their kids really are on a school bus.
The horrific images out of Tennessee are hitting close to home in Texas.
“It’s heartbreaking,” said Devin Wolf, a bus crash survivor. “What I went through was so tough, and just to see that it’s even younger kids. It’s a tragedy.”
In 2006, Wolf and her soccer teammates from Beaumont’s West Brook High School were on the way to Humble when their charter bus crashed in Liberty County, killing two of her friends.
Wolf survived, but she lost her left arm from injuries sustained in the wreck.
“First reaction always is that anything needs to have seatbelts,” Wolf said on Tuesday in response to the Chattanooga crash. “I’m so seatbelt strong just because it’s life-changing. It could save some other kids’ lives and probably prevented even more injuries on the Tennessee bus crash as well.”
Wretha Thomas, President of the Houston ISD Transportation and Support Personnel, the district’s bus drivers’ union, agrees that seatbelts are critical.
“We had this problem here in Houston, and seatbelts could have saved those kids’ lives,” Thomas said.
According to numbers from the Texas Education Agency, during the 2015-16 school year, more than 23,000 Texas students were involved in bus accidents. In those accidents, more than 400 students were hurt, and two were killed, both HISD students not wearing their lap seatbelts inside of a school bus that rolled over on the South Loop near Telephone Road in September 2015.
Of those injured, 42 were wearing lap only belts, seven had three-point seatbelts, which cover the lap and shoulder, and more than 100 were injured and not wearing seat belts.
The crash that injured Wolf prompted Texas to pass a law in 2007 requiring all school buses bought after 2010 to have seatbelts, making the Lone Star State one of only six in the country to have such a measure, according to CBS News.
However, a loophole says the law can only be enforced if the state comes through with the money, which, at least in Houston, isn’t happening in the current year. That money is critical for HISD and other school districts, where the installation of three-point seatbelts can run as high as $10,000 per bus.
Currently about half of HISD’s fleet of roughly 1,100 school buses do not have seatbelts. Most of those that do have lap belts. About 150 buses have three-point seatbelts, including 90 for special needs students, and 60 purchased in Fall 2016 for elementary school students on long-distance routes.
After the September 2015 crash, HISD mandated that all new buses be equipped with three-point seatbelts, and over the summer, began requiring students to wear them.
NTSB officials say in most cases, children are still safest travelling to and from school on school buses, even those without seatbelts. That’s because the seats are high, closely-spaced, and cushioned on the front and back, creating a “compartmentalization” effect that can passively protect children during a front and rear collision.
However, that design does not protect children when the bus is hit from the side or rolls over. For that reason, NTSB tests and crash numbers show the three-point seatbelt is the safest form.
(© 2016 KHOU)