In one day, Egg Harbor Township’s fleet of 145 school buses makes 800 runs carrying thousands of children to and from school. In a year, the buses cover 1.2 million miles of road over the township’s 68 square miles and beyond.

But bus accidents here are rare, at about three a year and none fatal in the 25 years Warren “Skip” Fipp has led the Egg Harbor Township School District’s Transportation Department.

Following a deadly school bus crash May 17 in North Jersey, there has been a renewed focus on school bus safety in the state. Last week, the National Transportation Safety Board made a recommendation to states such as New Jersey that don’t require three-point harnesses, also called shoulder and lap belts, to install them on buses.

Even without further action, national data show school buses are still the safest way to transport students.

Thomas Brabson, chairman of emergency medical services at AtlantiCare, said seat belts can prevent serious injury for students on school buses.

“The advantage of the lap belts, as we learned from the last crash, is it at least keeps the students in their seats,” Brabson said. “The downside is they need to be properly placed.”

He said the three-point harness adds an additional layer of protection as it prevents the upper body from being projected forward and hitting the back of the seat in front of it. Brabson said it won’t matter if school buses have seat belts if they aren’t being used properly.

“You can have the seat belts, but if there’s not a mechanism to make sure they’re properly buckled in each time, then the seat belt’s not going to do anything,” he said.

Since 1993, school buses in New Jersey are required to have lap belts, and each year, laws and regulations are added or updated to promote safety, Fipp said.

“I think we do a great job,” Fipp said of the state.

Prior to the Mount Olive crash, the last time a student in New Jersey died in a school bus collision in New Jersey was in 2012 in Chesterfield, Mercer County.

Fipp said shoulder belts are “a no-brainer,” but they are costly — an additional $10,000 for a 54-passenger bus. He also had a concern about transitioning the height of the shoulder belt between older and younger students due to their height differences. Brabson countered this point by stating they would at least keep the body from moving forward.

The NTSB recommendation isn’t binding, and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration hasn’t made a move to require them. Fipp said that currently, school buses are designed with an extended, foam seat back that will protect students in a crash. He said if more funding becomes available, the three-point harnesses are certainly a consideration for Egg Harbor Township school buses.

Bus safety requirements in New Jersey have been expanding for years. Fipp said that most recently, New Jersey passed Abigail’s Law, requiring new buses to have sensors that will detect if a person or object is too close to the bus before it moves from a stopped position.

State law also requires that every six months the New Jersey Motor Vehicle Commission do a 180-point inspection on the buses in the township’s fleet.

Fipp said bus safety is a priority for Egg Harbor Township, which is why in 1992, the school district led the way in implementing lap belts on its buses a year before state law mandated it. School buses in the township now have cameras inside to monitor students and drivers, and this year, five buses were part of a GPS test program.

A director of transportation for Resorts and Trump casinos during the 1980s, Fipp said the buses are his limos and the children his guests.

“The challenges are just making sure everything runs smooth,” he said.

Contact: 609-272-7251 Twitter @clairelowe

Staff Writer

I began covering South Jersey in 2008 after graduating from Rowan University with a degree in journalism. I joined The Press in 2015. In 2013, I was awarded a NJPA award for feature writing as a reporter for The Current of Hamilton Township.

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