Durham County

Buckle up for safety. Why some Durham school buses are getting seat belts.

Quamire Street, a third-grader at Holt Elementary Magnet School, thinks the new seat and lap belts on his brand new bus are “cool!”

“They’re safer for you,” Street said of the three-point lap-shoulder belts on the bus he rides. “You don’t bump into the seat when they [bus drivers] hit the brakes.”

Quamire’s bus is one of nine new Durham Public Schools’ buses to be equipped with lap/shoulder belts this year as part of a pilot program sponsored by the N.C. Department of Public Instruction (NCDPI).

“Thanks to this new state funding, we’ll be able to introduce these buses to our fleet and evaluate how effective the seat belts are,” said G. Scott Denton, DPS assistant superintendent for auxiliary services.

Holt is the first school to try out the new buses because classes started for year-round schools onJuly 17.

The remaining eight buses will hit the road when classes for students on a traditional school calendar begin on Aug. 28. DPS is still in the process of determining which schools will receive the remaining eight buses with seat belts.

Superintendent Bert L’Homme said the new buses with seat belts are all about safety.

“Our highest priority in transportation is to get our students to school and home again safely,” L’Homme said in a statement. “This is a terrific pilot program and I hope it leads to more of our buses being equipped with seat belts.”

Derek Graham, NCDPI’s director of transportation, told The Herald-Sun in February that about 100 of the state’s 13,000 school buses now use lap/shoulder belts. Graham said another 100 or more buses, including those shipped to Durham, will get lap/shoulder belts this year.

It costs an average of about $7,000 to equip school buses with the lap/shoulder belts, which are similar to those used in cars.

The DPS Board of Education has adopted a policy that requires all students to buckle up when riding on buses that have seat belts.

Yolanda Bridges, a fifth-grader at Holt, said she always buckles up when riding in cars, so buckling up on the school bus has been an easy transition.

“I like them,” Bridges said. “They make me feel protected more.”

Marionanna Edwards, who drives the new Holt bus, said students have adjusted well to the new seat belts.

“This helps me,” said Edwards who has been driving school buses for a little more than two years. “I don’t have to worry about them getting up and moving around.”

There has been much debate about whether lap/shoulder belts improve safety on school buses.

The American School Bus Council (ASBC) contends that even without lap/shoulder belts schools buses are the safest mode of transportation for students.

“The children are protected like eggs in an egg-carton — compartmentalized and surrounded with padding and structural integrity to secure the entire container,” according to the ASBC website.

Meanwhile, Kevin Harrison, transportation section chief for the NCDPI, said the seat-lap belts enhance safety, improve student behavior and allow bus drivers to remain focused on driving.

“We hope that this improved working environment will help with driver retention and that it will enhance drivers’ interactions with students,” Harrison said. “We commend Durham Public Schools for being among the first groups in North Carolina to help research the many benefits of three-point seat belts.”

Greg Childress: 919-419-6645, @gchild6645

New law

North Carolina motorists can be fined at least $400 if they pass a stopped school bus, according to a new law now in effect.

Gov. Roy Cooper on Tuesday signed into law legislation that he suggested while still attorney general. The new law allows counties to adopt ordinances and cite motorists by using cameras installed on the stop-arms of buses. The penalties can rise to $1,000 on a third offense.

Cooper and other supporters of the idea have said the cameras will reduce the number of motorists skirting around the buses and increasing the risks for striking children getting on or getting off.