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School buses: The cost of safety

Blue Bird supplies most Middle Georgia school districts with their buses/Danielle Apolinar (WGXA)

WARNER ROBINS, Ga. -- You pray and hope it never happens to your family.

"You send your loved ones -- your little ones -- off to school and they don't come home," Lilybell says.

But sometimes, accidents happen.

"She was a little social butterfly," Lilybell said about her great niece.

Six-year-old Arlana Haynes -- who was a first-grader at Parkwood Elementary School -- was thrown from her Houston County school bus in February. She didn't survive the crash.

Now, her great aunt Lilybell is turning her grief into movement.

"We know little 'Lana is gone," she said. "But what about the other little 'Lana's still here? How can we make them safe?"

Lilybell believes school bus safety should always take the front seat.

Trey Jenkins, senior vice president of operation at Blue Bird, says his company is the top bus manufacturer in America. He said Blue Bird supplies most middle Georgia school districts with their buses.

Their factory in Fort Valley produces about 65 buses a day.

Jenkins says safety is Blue Bird's priority.

"We are transporting the most precious cargo, in our opinion," he said.

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), a school bus is the safest vehicle on the road. But despite the heavy regulations on school buses, the NHTSA does not require them to have seat belts.

Jenkins said that choice is up to the district. And while seat belts aren't required, he has seen an increase in demand.

"They do a very nice job," Jenkins said. "Probably in time you’ll see this more and more and more."

Blue Bird has different seat belt options.

"Our seat belt seat can be lap belt, it can be a three-point belt or child safety restraints for smaller children," Jenkins said.

In December, Houston County spent more than $250,000 on five Blue Bird school buses. Jenkins said if the district adds seat belts, the price tag goes up per school bus.

"$2,000 to $4,000 -- anywhere in that neighborhood," he said.

Jenkins said districts don't usually spend extra money on safety features because Blue Bird builds them into their buses -- a high-floor base frame.

"That will divert the smaller vehicle under the bus and avoid the vehicle from intruding on the occupant cabin," he said.

He also said all buses also go through rigorous testing.

"Kentucky pole test -- sounds like what it is," Jenkins said. "You drop a pole on top and it makes sure the vehicles won't crush if there's an accident involving a roll over."

Lilybell isn't sure this is enough. After all, her great niece died in the accident.

She said she hopes to open a conversation about bus safety that will prevent another child death.

"It would mean no one else has to go through what we're going through," she said. "And it would make it seem like her little life wasn't lost in vain."

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