A bus fitted with seatbelts.

A bus fitted with seatbelts.

Iowa’s largest school district is launching a bus seatbelt study. Des Moines Public Schools transportation director Todd Liston says the district is getting two school buses outfitted with lap-shoulder belts for 65 passengers.

The trial is being paid for by the Iowa Department of Education, school bus seat manufacturer SynTec and Thomas Bus Sales.

“We know school buses are the safest way to get around, if the seatbelts help improve that and it didn’t cost us anymore, that’s great,” Liston said. It costs about $8,000 per bus to add three belts to each seat. School bus accidents are relatively rare — primarily because their size, bright color and lights make them highly visible to other motorists. Injuries to students on buses are also rare.

“For years the position has been…it’s called compartmentalization. That’s a fancy term for a padded cocoon. So, the seat back and front are padded, the seat is padded, and the bottom is padded. The data has shown, through the years, that compartmentalization works amazingly well to keep kids safe,” Liston said. “So, the idea is — if that’s so safe, does the seatbelt improve that?” One bus with seatbelts will begin transporting Des Moines kids on Monday (October 31), while the other bus is scheduled to arrive by December 1. Liston will report his findings to the manufacturers and the Iowa Department of Education through the end of the school year.

“The main test is going to be how kids react,” Liston said. “We hope to never actually test the crash safety stuff in any of our buses. We hope to never have to test if seatbelts work in an accident. What we truly want to find out is how kids respond and react. Do they climb on the bus, sit down, and buckle up automatically?” Liston is also interested to see how parents react — if they’ll demand school buses be equipped with seatbelts.

“They’re so expensive, so it’s going to be a funding thing,” Liston said. “The Des Moines School District isn’t capable or basically can’t afford to outfit our buses with seatbelts, so it’s going to be a legislature thing. So, could it be funded at a state level?” In addition to improved safety, Liston is hoping the seatbelts will simplify the bus driver’s job.

“A big concern of ours is student behavior and how kids don’t stay seated. You know, they’re in the aisle or hopping over seats or just messing around like kids do on a bus,” Liston said. “So, my hope is that kids behave, they sit in their seat, they stay seatbelted, they stay safe, and it makes the driver’s job easier.” Des Moines is the only school district in the state taking part in the trial.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration recommended for the first time in 2015 that seat belts be added to school buses.