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Indiana says it can't afford to add seat belts to buses

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Indiana officials said Tuesday that they would love to require safety belts on every school bus, but they just can't afford it.

The comments from Michael LaRocco, the state education department's director of school transportation, came a day after a deadly school bus crash in Indianapolis. State police said their initial investigations indicate nothing was wrong with the bus before it crashed into a railroad bridge, killing the driver and a 5-year-old student on board.

LaRocco said Monday's accident was the first fatality of a school-age child riding or getting on or off an Indiana school bus since 2009.

LaRocco said it would cost about $160 million to equip all of Indiana's 16,000 school buses with effective restraints, and neither the state nor individual districts can shoulder that cost, even incrementally.

"I like the idea of them," LaRocco said. "But in a realistic world, it's just not reasonably functional for us to do that."

School buses are heavier than normal cars and distribute forces differently after crashes, so riders feel less of an impact. Buses are also designed so that the seats absorb some impact in a crash, protecting riders.

Indiana state police inspect all school buses at least once a year, Capt. David Bursten said. The 18-year-old bus involved in Monday's crash passed an inspection on Jan. 3.

The bus was carrying 50 students to the Indianapolis Lighthouse Charter School when it collided with a concrete pillar. The impact tore apart the front end and scraped off part of the driver's side of the bus.

Student Donasty Smith, and 60-year-old bus driver Thomas Spencer II died. The Marion County Coroner's Office said Spencer died of multiple blunt-force traumatic injuries. Toxicology tests were being performed on Spencer, but those results won't be released to the public.

Ten more students were injured in the crash. Two remain at Riley Hospital for Children in critical condition. Riley spokesman Gene Ford said Tuesday he had no details on their status.

Although Indianapolis police are leading the crash probe, Bursten said state police are responsible for investigating the condition of any school bus involved in a fatal crash.

"There is nothing at this point that indicates there was anything with the bus that contributed to the crash," Bursten said. He said state police are still investigating whether Spencer had been licensed and certified to drive a school bus.

Phil Isenbarger, an attorney for bus owners Miller Transportation, said the company plans to conduct its own investigation. He said the bus passed an inspection earlier this year.

Spencer had been with the company since July 2010. Isenbarger said initial information pointed to no problems with the driver.

The bus was equipped with an on-board video camera, but Isenbarger said investigators were having issues downloading the video.

Indianapolis Metropolitan Police have interviewed a handful of witnesses and collected measurements from the crash site and are waiting for the results of the state police investigations, Officer Anthony Schneider said.

The driver of another school bus following the one that crashed told city police it wasn't speeding and didn't swerve before the collision.

Donasty's mother, Danyelle Smith, said she had two daughters on the bus. The older of the two, 7-year-old Erielle Norris, survived.

"Cherish your babies, because you never know what's going to happen. One day they're here, the next day they're gone," she told Indianapolis television station WTHR.

State Rep. Robert Behning, a Republican from Indianapolis who chairs the House Education Committee, said he can't remember any direct legislative push to require the restraints on buses in recent years. But he said it may come up next year, depending on whether media coverage continues or if another accident occurs.

Six states currently mandate that large school buses come equipped with seat belts.

Behning said it's possible Indiana could use property tax money already being collected for the state's fleet to cover any costs to install seat belts over time.

"For that child that died yesterday, that's a life you can't replace, and there was damage to other children both emotionally and physically," Behning said. "If it's something you do a year at a time, it's not nearly as big of a fiscal undertaking."

LaRocco said some districts are installing safety belts and covering the costs themselves. He worries that if the state were to make that a requirement of all public schools, many would just stop providing bus service rather than shoulder the cost.

"We're talking about the safest ground transportation on the planet, bar none," LaRocco said. "This was an extremely rare case for us."

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  • Message For Paul
    Well Paul, and anyone else wanting every death associated with a road accident to be addressed by our government, please stop complaining about the need for higher taxes. With tax dollars, we can be made to believe that our lives are safer. When a man died out in Brownsburg at a train track crossing, people immediately wanted to know why that crossing did not have "Crossing Arms". Those demands came before people realized that the road-track crossing was a private drive leading to businesses. The school bus accident was just that, an accident. Seat belts will not make children safe on a school bus. All seat belts will create is a nightmare for bus drivers and EMS personnel when extracting children after a fatal accident.
  • air bags for buses
    Question - when are the bus manufacturers going to step up and make the changes needed to safely protect the children? Answer - when government mandates them to do so. We've done it with automobiles, why not buses. I agree w/ earlier comments that it would take far too long to get kids out of set belts in an emergency situation where the only one on the scene is the bus driver.
  • Typical
    Typical, the state can afford to eliminate the estate tax, for all the rich and powerful, but we cannot afford seat belts for children. The crap about small business and family farms does not wash. Why should we make the children a priority. Way to go Mitch, you should be president of a local private club, then you could set up smoke filled rooms and make critical decisions for the little folk.
  • Dangerous Underpass
    Paul, I suspect the reason for not having a guard rail around this bridge support is that it is already a tight space. Much tighter for a school bus than for a car, too.
  • All about money.
    LaRocca states that buses are heavy and react differently to crashes. 80,000 lb semi trucks are heavy and react differently but if a driver of one of those is caught without a seatbelt on they get a ticket for $150!!! Much easier to hit up a working man than to protect children. All about money.
  • Seat Belt LAW
    Indiana could Easily Afford Seat Belts for the Children's SAFETY! All Indiana has to do, since they are getting money from the Lottery Board for Schools, is to QUIT putting it into a Retirement Plan for the Teachers, and put it where it BELONGS, Children's Safety! That money could have saved lives! But instead they want to make sure these half witted Teachers have money for retirement. Big Deal. I THOUGHT Children should come first! Shame on you Indiana!!!!
  • like this article.....
    http://www.ibj.com/transportation/PARAMS/article/15075
    • immovable object
      Terry said, "Why is it that every time an accident takes a life, people want the government to get involved and make their lives safer, or protect their children, or save the world."
      Answer: Because people like to not die.

      Having said that, I don't know that having seat belts on a bus is a good idea or necessary. My attention is on why there isn't a guardrail and/or other barrier in front of the bridge pillar to deflect vehicles away from a head-on collision with an immovable object.
    • safer without them
      My husband drives a school bus. Most people do not know that if there is a fire on the bus; you have 3 minutes to get off, before the fumes of the fuel and other fluids become so toxic that they are deadly. If a driver has to help upto 84 (yes there can be that many kids or more on a single bus) out of their seatbelts, when they are scared, less than half would be getting off that bus in the 3 minute time frame.
    • wrong path of thinking......
      Why do we assume the main object is correct and we must simply alter it? Remember when kids walked to schools......or anywhere. Remember when school wasn't a mega temple 6 miles from the nearest home? This country needs to focus on actual issues to find solutions. Buses are expensive with or without seatbelts. This is money not going to educate kids...........
    • Accidents Happen
      Why is it that every time an accident takes a life, people want the government to get involved and make their lives safer, or protect their children, or save the world. Seat belts on school buses might be the dumbest suggestion yet. If a school bus rolls over, or is hit by a tractor-trailer, how long do you think it will take to extract forty or more children from a school bus that is on it's side? In an unrelated accident, a man was killed when his truck was hit by a train, and he was not wearing a seat belt, and he was ejected from the vehicle. Accidents happen, and my heart goes out to the families of those killed, but I realize that government coming in after the fact will cost more money than basic training for school bus drivers and proper road repairs by - you got it - our government funded road crews. We will soon learn that water pools under that bridge, and the driver possibly swerved to avoid a pot hole or pool of water. Either way, seat belts on school buses make very little sense to me. However, I would like to hear from an EMS or Firefighter. They are normally the first responders and their input will help immensely.
    • Seat Belts
      What the hell happened to the $ 320 million plus that was allegedly discovered according to Mitchy.
    • Lotto money anyone?
      sure we can! lets just devert a few million from the hoosier loto fund in a one time deal for lets say one year and BOOM! seatbelt on buses. and in a few years when they need to be replaced we can talk about replacing in a mass move again. i am so sick of everyone making a fed case on every issue effecting this state. i mean come on people are acting like this is LA or NY lol have some comon sense!

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