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Alberta school bus crash brings up question of seatbelts again

Smoky Lake school bus crash horrible reminder for Alberta mom
WATCH ABOVE: Dec. 4: A school bus crash in Smoky Lake Monday is bringing back horrible memories for other Alberta parents. Sarah Ryan reports.

An Alberta mother whose daughter was killed in a school bus crash in the spring of 2008 said news of Monday’s Smoky Lake collision has renewed her passion to push for seatbelts on school buses.

“Would it have helped Jenny? I don’t know. The only thing is, she wouldn’t have been thrown from the bus,” Donna Noble said.

Jenny Noble, 17,  was ejected from her school bus when it was hit by a gravel truck in thick fog on Highway 53 near Rimbey in central Alberta. Doctors told Noble the 17-year-old died instantly.

In Monday’s crash north of Edmonton, 14 students and three adults were involved, all but one transported either to hospital in Edmonton or the health centre in Smoky Lake. Five of the children were then listed as being in critical condition.

READ MORE: Alberta school bus crash leaves 5 people in critical condition

“Here, I understand that nobody was thrown from the bus, thankfully,” Noble said.

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“But if they had seatbelts, would their injuries have been not as bad? Because you can’t tell me they didn’t fly around in the bus.”

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Alberta Transportation Minister Ric McIver said a federal review into school bus safety is ongoing and will consider seatbelts. But McIver has concerns.

“To retrofit seatbelts on a school bus, the research says it will make the school bus less safe instead of more. Because the bus isn’t made for a seatbelt.”

READ MORE: Boy airlifted to Edmonton hospital after Smoky Lake bus crash expected to make full recovery

To combat those fears, Noble suggests putting seatbelts on new buses, rather than retrofitting old ones.

Compartmentalization is the main safety mechanism on school buses. It relies on tall seat backs, padded with energy-absorbing material, and seats spaced close together to form compartments.

But in a 2010 research report, Transport Canada found that compartmentalization, while effective in frontal crashes, “offers limited protection in side crashes and roll‐overs.”

The report recommended three-point seatbelts to reduce the likelihood of ejection, which increases the risk of injury.

Students in hospital following school bus collision in Smoky Lake, Alta.
Students in hospital following school bus collision in Smoky Lake, Alta.

In the United States, several states have passed legislation requiring lap and shoulder seatbelts on school buses.

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In recent years, the National Transportation Safety Board — the American equivalent of the Transportation Safety Board of Canada — has advocated for the belts as well.

On its website, the NTSB says although school buses are extremely safe, when students are injured or killed, it’s usually in side-impact crashes or high-speed rollovers.

“In these accidents, compartmentalization was not enough to prevent all injuries; for some of the children involved, a seatbelt could have lessened their injuries or even saved their lives.”

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The NTSB doesn’t advocate retrofitting old buses, but rather including seatbelts on new buses.

“As a result of our school bus crash investigations, we believe — and have recommended — that when investing in new school buses, the purchased vehicles should provide children with the best protection available, which includes three-point seatbelts.”

READ MORE: MPs studying bus safety not calling for mandatory seatbelts on school buses

Transport Canada said it expects the results of the federal review on school bus safety to be presented in 2020 to transportation ministers across the country.