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Drive Time

Bound and Determined

Are seat belts really a good idea on school buses? Think of what kids are like on them. Now think what they could do with a seat belt.


The school bus is an icon with a personality conflict. From the outside, it is a symbol of all that is good and wholesome about America; its instantly recognizable yellow is warm and soothing, its rounded contours seem safe and maternal, perfectly shaped for bearing our children from their nutritious breakfasts to their motivated teachers and home again.

Inside, it's a whole other story. Oh, the elementary school buses are OK, but anything after that is "Lord of the Flies" meets "Cool Hand Luke." Inside, that icon of safety is an endless, multi-fronted battle for power fought by an ever-shifting alliance of warriors who can make a deadly weapon out of a bobby pin, whose political and social machinations make the Medicis look kindly, the War of the Roses simplistic.

And now it's just gotten a whole lot worse. Because, as of Jan. 1, all new school buses bought or leased by the state of California are required to have combination seat and lap belts.

I want everyone who ever rode a school bus to close their eyes for a minute. Imagine the ride home from school every day, the salty, grassy funk of 60-odd kids squashed against one another, three to a seat; the shouted insults and double-dares; the thud of a lunch box hitting a window in a game of keep-away; the sudden metallic snap of someone's binder being undone, its contents hurled to the floor; the constant undertone of argument and discontent as kids are shoved and pinched and punched very hard in the arm, the occasional burst of tears.

Now add a whole new element: For every child, a sturdy strap with a nice heavy chunk of metal on the end. Imagine the possibilities--the smaller kid strapped into a corner, the web of belts strung across the aisle, the choking sounds, the taunting of the heavier kids who have a hard enough time fitting into the seats at all, the gum and other objects jammed into the mouths of the clasps, the attempts at martial arts competitions. And above it all the lament of the poor driver as he or she tries to get every kid to buckle up.

A bus driver I know simply shook her head as New Year's Day loomed. Impossible to enforce, she said, just another thing for the already-beleaguered drivers to worry about.

And apparently unnecessary. The bill, which was pushed through in 1997 by Assemblyman Martin Gallegos (D-Baldwin Park), was in direct contradiction with a study done by the National Transportation Safety Board that found that bus seats were too flat and slippery for the belts to be effective. Another study by the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration will be completed early this year; when asked, spokesman Tim Hurd pointed out that school bus passenger fatalities and injuries are extremely rare. Nationwide there are fewer than 10 deaths each year, and many of these, including the two children who were killed in Los Angeles in 1995 by a malfunctioning garbage truck, would not have been prevented by safety belts.

Fortunately for those who would be belted, the chance of actually riding a new school bus in the next year or so is pretty slim. Transportation is on the low end of the budget priority, according to a representative of the Los Angeles Unified School District, so the number of buses purchased or newly leased is likely to be very small.

Meanwhile, traditional anarchy reigns. It really only takes a few kids to turn a bus bad. Close your eyes again and I bet you can see the ones who led the charge on your bus, the kid who smoked in the back, who snapped every bra strap in sight, the one who threw your lunch out the window. Compared with what kids face now, these images are probably quite tame. But wouldn't it have been nice if there had been just enough belts to strap the troublemakers down?

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