Installation of seat belts on school buses isn’t a foregone conclusion for the North Okanagan-Shuswap School District.
During their Tuesday, Feb. 19 meeting, School District 83’s board of education received a report from director of operations Trevor Bettcher about the implications of adding seatbelts to buses.
He explained provincial legislation places the responsibility of having students, ages 16 and under, wear their seatbelts—and assuring belts are properly adjusted—on the bus driver.
Also under the legislation, drivers cannot leave their seats unless they are off the travelled portion of the highway (there are 931 bus stops along highways in the school district).
Cost-wise, Bettcher said adding three-point belts to new school buses (from Western Canada Bus factory) would add $5,500 to $6,500 to the cost of each while retrofitting the district’s 24 newer buses (of its 52-bus fleet) would cost approximately $8,000 for parts and $2,000 for labour per bus.
Bettcher added the district’s older Thomas buses would probably cost $35,000 dollars but said it would be very difficult to get an engineer to sign off on the retrofit.
Spurring Bettcher’s report is Transport Canada’s recognition that seatbelts would improve safety in the event of a rollover or side impact. A federal task force will be evaluating what mandatory seatbelts on school buses would look like.
Kathy Keam, a bus driver for 38 years in the school district, now retired, said rollovers and side collisions don’t happen often; we hear about them when they do because that’s when injuries happen.
“The majority of crashes that happen are either front end or rear end, so when they’re sitting safely what happens is they would go into the front of the seat as a whole, and back as a whole, so the injuries would be less severe,” said Keam, noting the safety of bus seating has improved over the years to include compartmentalized higher seats with thicker padding.
Keam notes having the bus driver responsible for assuring riders are safely buckled in would likely add time to routes.
“You take a kindergarten kid, who is five or four, they’re so used to everybody else doing their seatbelt for them … they may not have the capability to do it themselves,” she said.
Alternatively, there are worst-case scenarios where riders need to be out of their buckles as soon as possible.
“So I have 50 kids on the bus, we live in an area where there’s a lot of water. What if for some reason that bus ends up getting submerged in the water? You have 50 kids seatbelted in, what are your chances of getting them all out?” said Keam. “The other one is if the bus catches on fire. You have 50 kids seatbelted in, how do you get them all out, get the buckles all undone”
“I mean, we practice bus evacuation in our district all the time, we do the training continually through the year, but those are a couple of more things to actually think about.”
Bettcher said to date, no B.C. school districts have implemented seatbelt on school buses.