By Mike LaBella
---- — HAVERHILL — It was a minor accident in which a car collided with a van bringing students to school.
But school officials said the four children who were riding in the van yesterday were likely protected from injury because they were wearing seat belts.
The incident has added local fuel to a statewide debate — whether seat belts should be required in all school buses, not just those transporting small numbers of children or special education students.
“As state and public safety officials promote the use of seat belts, there is no doubt in my mind that all children should be buckled in when vehicles are moving,” Haverhill School Superintendent James Scully said yesterday. “Today’s accident amplifies the point of the necessity of seat belts.”
Scully said that if the children in the van were not wearing seat belts, they might have been injured, even though the accident was a minor one and resulted in a dented rear bumper on the van and damage to the front end of the Audi which collided with the van.
In recent years, some lawmakers have pushed for changes in public safety laws that would require the installation of seat belts in all school buses in Massachusetts. According to the National Highway and Traffic Safety Administration, school buses are one of the safest forms of transportation in the country and are seven times safer than passenger cars and light trucks. And because of the unique impact-absorbing design of large school buses, children are protected without the need for seat belts, the administration said.
The administration also said children are at greater risk of being killed while boarding and leaving a bus than inside the bus, and from accidents involving passenger car transportation to or from school.
According to federal motor vehicle safety standards, school buses weighing less than 10,000 pounds must be equipped with lap or lap/shoulder belt restraints because vehicles in this weight class are closer to that of cars and small trucks, which are required to have seat belts.
Local school officials said all of the city’s small vehicles which transport special education students are equipped with seat belts and that children riding in them must buckle up.
“We have seat belts on all our small special education vehicles,” said School Transportation Coordinator Kevin Eldridge.
Susan Bellerose, office manager for Coppola Bus Inc., which provides school bus transportation services for Haverhill, said Coppola’s standard-size school buses weigh more than 26,000 pounds and are not equipped with seat belts. She said large school buses are built with several alternate safety features, including padded high-back seats as well as reinforced areas that are designed to absorb the shock of a collision.
“God forbid there’s an accident and you have two or three kids in a seat who could panic and not get their belts off,” she said. “Or imagine kids goofing around and hitting themselves with seat belts or having a belt hanging over a seat and having a kid trip over it?”
The School Transportation Association of Massachusetts notes on its website reasons why seat belts are not required for use in large school buses. According to the association, school districts may require seat belts if they wish, but many districts which have tried seat belts have dropped the requirement due to the many practical problems with their use.
The association also said decades of study by the federal government and experts have shown repeatedly that seat belts in school buses are not warranted. Instead, government regulations concerning higher seat backs, shorter front-to-back seat spacing, and fully padded surfaces provide passive restraint, the association said. Studies document that this system provides greater protection to young passengers than seat belts would in full-size school buses.
School officials said students were wearing seat belts yesterday morning when, around 8:40 a.m., the handicap van transporting them to Pentucket Lake Elementary School was hit from behind by a car. Police said the 2006 Ford Econoline van was either slowing or was stopped in traffic on Main Street near 6th Avenue when it was hit from behind by a 2006 Audi sedan. As of yesterday afternoon the accident was still under investigation and no charges had been filed, police said.
The children — two kindergarten boys, one first-grade boy and one third-grade boy — were not injured in the crash, school officials said. They were transported in two ambulances to Merrimack Valley Hospital as a precaution and were later released to their parents.
Pentucket Lake Principal Dianne Connolly said she was called to the scene of the crash after the van driver notified the School Department’s transportation office of the accident. Connolly rode in one of the ambulances while a school bus monitor rode in the other ambulance.
Connolly said the children’s parents arrived at the hospital and were appreciative of the way the situation was handled.
“The children were not upset. They were in control and the district’s policy was so clear that things worked perfectly,” Connolly said. “The EMTs were great with the kids.”
Connolly said one parent was ready to send their child back to school as soon he was released and that she expects all four children to be in school today.
“The best news was that nobody was hurt,” Connolly said.
Eldridge said the damaged van was driven to a repair shop and will likely be back in service next week. In the meantime, a spare van will be used as a replacement, he said.
Eldridge said the damaged van has a wheelchair lift, although it was not carrying a wheelchair yesterday. He said the children who were on the van are not physically disabled, but are special needs students.