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Local school districts react to new school bus safety recommendations

SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- 

A recent report released by the National Transportation Safety Board is pushing for more seat belts and other added safety features in school buses.

It’s an effort to keep students safe, but some local schools say adding these seat belts might do just the opposite. 

The report suggests Indiana should enact legislation to require three-point seat belts for all new large school buses. 

"If it was going to increase the safety of our students, we would have done this years ago," said Juan Martinez-Legus, the director of transportation for South Bend Community School Corporation.

The corporation says student safety is its number one priority. 

It already has seat belts on its buses, but just lap belts-- rather than the three-point belts now being recommended. Three-point belts have an added strap that goes across the body.

If the recommendation turns into a mandate, Martinez-Legus says he worries it would not only decrease safety, but also add other issues for the district like retraining for bus evacuations.

In the case of a fire, evacuations must be done within two minutes, Martinez-Legus worries that’s not enough time for students to get seat belts undone.  

"That scares me to think about that,” he said. “People might say there's a seat belt cutter on the bus. If you have to get a kid off quickly you have one adult trying to get a kid off a bus. Some of our buses have up to 84 passengers."

Martinez-Legus says school buses are specially designed to keep kids safe. 

"It’s all by a process called compartmentalization, which means they're sitting back to back, bottom to bottom, facing forward. They're protected by the seat padding in front of them and the seat padding behind them," he said. 

He’s worked in the industry for more than 20 years and has been involved in high-impact crashes. He says with no seat belts, all his students were fine. 

"What would have happened to their little bodies, or even their almost adult bodies if those seat belts would have locked and been in place and not allowed them to touch the padding in front or the padding behind them?" he said. "There have not been enough studies done on the impact of seat belts inside of a school bus, and that concerns me."

Penn Harris Madison School Corporation also responded to the recommendation in a statement saying: 

“We support and welcome any changes and advancements that will help make our buses even safer for the transportation of our children.”

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