A month after tragedy struck, a family's online petition calling for seat belts on all Georgia school buses has gained almost 900 signatures.
Six-year-old Arlana Haynes, a first-grader at Parkwood Elementary in Houston County, died Jan. 30 from injuries she sustained in a school bus wreck the day before.
"Had she been buckled in, she would not have been thrown through the window, and she would possibly still be spreading her sunshine and cheer among us," the petition says.
Seat belts have been required on regular passenger vehicles since 1968, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. School buses, on the other hand, live by a separate set of rules. But why?
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Each year, four to six children die across the country on school transportation vehicles, the traffic safety administration reports.
Haynes was ejected from her Houston County bus when it overturned on Forest Park Drive near North Pleasant Hill Road, according to a Warner Robins police report. Representatives of the Houston County school district declined to comment while the investigation is ongoing.
There were 1,774 school bus wrecks across Georgia in 2017, according to the state Department of Education. There were 63 accidents in Bibb County; 37 in Houston; 15 in Baldwin; and a handful of wrecks in other Middle Georgia districts. Of those incidents, only seven injuries to school bus passengers or drivers were recorded. Bibb County Transportation Director Anthony Jackson said his district's tally includes minor incidents, such as a bus scraping a stop sign when two students were on board.
Small school buses that weigh 10,000 pounds or less must be equipped with seat belts, but it's up to the state or local districts to decide if they want to put seat belts on larger buses, according to the National Conference of State Legislators. Bibb and Bleckley counties, for instance, don't have seat belts on any of their regular buses, but there are seat belts on some special needs buses, district representatives said.
The only states that have some form of school bus seat belt law are Arkansas, California, Florida, Louisiana, New Jersey, New York and Texas, the National Conference of State Legislators reports.
Installing seat belts would cost between $7,000 and $11,000 per school bus, according to the National Association of Pupil Transportation. Since 2016, the NHTSA has required all new motor coaches and other large buses weighing more than 26,000 pounds to have lap and shoulder seat belts. However, that ruling did not include school buses and city transit buses, and it did not require seat belts to be installed in older motor coaches.
How buses are built
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's website refers to the school bus as "the safest vehicle on the road," saying students are 70 times more likely to get to school safely when they go by bus instead of a car. A lot of that has to do with the design of the vehicles.
To start, the yellow color makes them highly visible, and the size also contributes to their safety, Jackson said. They have flashing lights, stop arms, multiple cross-view mirrors, emergency windows and doors, and fire extinguishers.
Some school buses, including those in the Bibb district, also have crossing arms to keep students 10 feet away from the front of the bus.
It's also illegal for motorists to pass a school bus when the lights and stop arm are engaged. All of Bibb County's school buses and several in Houston and Jones counties now have stop-arm cameras that record vehicles that break that law. Drivers found to be in violation face $300 citations. Because of traffic, the most dangerous time of students' bus ride is when they get on and off the bus, Jackson said.
Buses are made so their integrity is maintained in the event of a crash. They're built to be able to support one and a half times their weight placed directly on top. A method called compartmentalization also comes into play.
"The padding, as well as the height of the seats and positioning of the seats, helps to ensure the majority of the impact is absorbed in the material and not so much by the occupants of the space," Jackson said. "That compartmentalization helps to keep students contained within this area in the event of an accident.
Compartmentalization, however, won't keep students from coming out of their space if the bus turns over.
Pros and cons
Arlana's parents, Angelica Rose and Christopher Haynes, hope their petition will increase awareness for school bus safety.
"The family feels this discussion is past due and seat belts could potentially prevent another family from experiencing the pain and hurt that has been brought to them," according to a statement from their attorneys, Teddy Reese and David Dozier. "As Angelica and Chris have said, cherish every moment with your child. One never knows when they will be contacted with tragic news."
Jackson said he understands why families would want seat belts on school buses, but there are also disadvantages to consider. If a bus were to catch fire, for example, there wouldn't be much time to get students unbuckled and evacuated. In addition, it would be a logistical challenge for drivers to ensure that all passengers are always buckled in.
Parents are paying attention.
"What do you do? Everybody's fighting for seat belts, but who's going to pay for that?" asked Joi Sutton, whose granddaughter attends Wells Elementary in Jones County. "I just want to make sure that she gets to school safety and home safely."
Dana Lee said she was surprised to learn that seat belts aren't on the Houston County buses her three children — two at Pearl Stephens Elementary and one at Warner Robins High — were riding. She wants to see them added.
Her family lived in Citrus County, Florida, before moving to Warner Robins six years ago. In Florida, each bus had a driver, a trained assistant and two student bus monitors, and they all knew how to help unbuckle seat belts in the event of the accident. The school also had bus safety training for students every three months.
"It is mandatory to have my child in a seat belt and a booster seat in my vehicle," Lee said. "Why would it be any different when a school bus is a bigger vehicle and they're riding with a stranger?"
After the fatal Houston accident, Lee's mother started taking her two younger children to and from school. Her older daughter still rides the bus because she has to be at school earlier, and sometimes she has to stand in the aisle because there aren't enough seats, Lee said.
"Not every child has a place to sit, and it's always been that way," said Cozy Cothren, who has two sons at Huntington Middle in Houston. She drives her children to school when she has them, but they ride the bus when they're staying with their father.
"(Seat belts) aren't going to matter if not all children have a place to sit," she said. "I think they need to fix the overcrowding problem before anything."