GEORGE F. LEE / GLEE@STARBULLETIN.COM
Workers prepared to right an overturned bus that ran off the road Thursday on Kamehameha Highway near Waikane Stream. The bus was carrying Kahuku High School water polo players to Honolulu when it swerved to avoid another car.
Seat belts debated
The state has rejected them as too costly to place on school buses
The crash of a public school bus carrying Kahuku High water polo players Thursday is renewing the debate of whether students should buckle up.
The Legislature will likely consider a resolution next week to urge the Board of Education to require seat belts in school buses, said state Rep. Marilyn Lee, vice chairwoman of the House Finance Committee.
Historically, calls to install the restraints have failed, here and nationally, largely because of the cost to retrofit school buses, which already have stricter safety standards than other vehicles.
School buses have tall, padded seats to protect students during impact, and their yellow color warns motorists to drive carefully, said Randy Moore, assistant superintendent for the Education Department, which opposed a seat belt bill this session.
He, however, acknowledged the value of seat belts if a bus were to roll over or overturn like the one that was taking 25 members of Kahuku High's girls water polo team to a scrimmage at Mid-Pacific Institute. The bus swerved to avoid a car on Kamehameha Highway and flipped onto its side in Waikane Stream, police said.
Twenty-six passengers were taken to hospitals, officials said, including two girls who were seriously injured. Kahuku High Principal Lisa DeLong said she believed all the girls were released that night.
The team will even play against Roosevelt High this morning at Brigham Young University, she said.
Every school day, more than 800 buses take some 40,000 public school children to class, according to Aaron Kimura, student transportation services branch director. All lack seat belts, except for a few smaller buses for special-needs students, he said.
It would cost the Education Department about $2 million to have companies add seat belts to their school buses, Moore said. But seat belts also might reduce capacity, leading to more buses on the road, and the department would need extra employees to make sure students are strapped, which could push costs up to $14 million, he noted.
"Even though people feel uncomfortable talking about the value of lives, we deal with it every day. It comes down to, 'You can reduce the risk at this cost. Is it worth it?'" he said. "(That) is ultimately a public policy issue."
House Resolution 62 was introduced after a seat belt bill that 18 lawmakers backed failed to advance after being opposed by the Hawaii transportation and school bus associations, and the Hawaii Association of Independent Schools.
Lee (D, Mililani-Mililani Mauka) wants at least a review of whether seat belts might have prevented some of the injuries the Kahuku students sustained.
"When you have a school bus accident, it makes you start thinking, 'Well, maybe it is necessary,'" she said.
Asked about the issue of seat belts in buses, DeLong said, "After yesterday I think that would be a good idea."