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School bus death stirs debate on seat belts

By wire services
Published November 18, 2004

WEST PALM BEACH - A school bus crash that killed a teenager has revived a debate about whether student passengers should be required to wear seat belts.

Diana Kautz, a freshman at Royal Palm Beach High School, was not wearing the lap belt on her school bus when it collided with a pickup and rolled over last week. She was ejected and killed.

Palm Beach County school officials are considering whether wearing the lap belts should be mandatory, and one lawmaker is calling for buses to add shoulder harnesses for more protection.

"Just like when we as parents are going to work, we have a lap belt on and a shoulder harness. The same should be available to students on school buses," said state Rep. Irv Slosberg, D-Boca Raton.

He submitted a bill last year that would require adding shoulder harnesses to lap belts on school buses, but it was never heard. He estimates the change would cost about $4,500 per bus.

The bus in last week's crash was carrying nine students. Deputies say it appears driver Maria Abrahantes ran a stop sign before hitting the pickup. No one was wearing a seat belt. The bus rolled over several times and landed on its side. Abrahantes remains hospitalized in serious condition.

Florida began requiring all new school buses to have seat belts in 1999, but wearing them is not required of students. A report by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration found that lap belts used in combination with a shoulder strap "could provide some benefit." Lap belts alone can increase the chance of serious neck and abdominal injuries, the 2002 report said.

The National Transportation Safety Board says school buses are safe because of their large size and design improvements made in recent decades that seat belts could harm more children than they would save.

Only about one third of 1 percent of all fatal traffic crashes in the United States are linked to school transportation, according to the NHTSA.

In Florida, the vast majority of students involved in school bus accidents escape with minor injuries, if any.

[Last modified November 18, 2004, 00:14:23]

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