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The Straight Dope

Why aren't seat belts mandatory in all school buses?
-- Kesti16, via AOL

When I first considered this question, the words natural selection bobbed inexplicably in my mind. On examination, however, the main factors are safety and expense. Which one was more important to the people in charge I leave for you to decide.

Their ungainly appearance might suggest otherwise, but school buses are actually pretty safe. On average only 11 children are killed in school bus wrecks each year, compared to the 5500 who die in accidents involving other vehicles. On a per-vehicle-mile basis, the school bus fatality rate is one-seventh that of other passenger vehicles.

Several factors account for the good record. School buses are taller and heavier than most other traffic and generally travel at moderate speeds. High seatbacks prevent kids from being thrown great distances in a collision, and impact-absorbing materials soften the blow.

The question remains controversial, however. High seatbacks don't help much when a bus is hit from the side or rolls over, and some people think more should be done. The national Parent Teacher Association, for example, has called for seat belts on new buses. The federal government recently began a two-year investigation of school bus safety that will likely result in new precautions. According to Education Week, more than two dozen state legislatures have considered mandatory seat belts over the years, although only New York and New Jersey currently require them.

Seat belts wouldn't necessarily make buses safer. On the contrary, some believe they would increase the number of serious injuries. Shoulder harnesses aren't practical in buses as currently designed, and lap belts are likely to cause more head and abdominal injuries because in a collision the wearer is jerked forward from the waist.

Then we get into the cost-benefit analysis. At $1800 a bus, outfitting the 440,000 school buses in the U.S. would cost nearly $800 million -- and when the annual death toll is only 11, how much lower can you go, realistically? Given that three times as many fatalities occur when students exit or enter buses, some think the money might be better spent educating the all-too-oblivious public that when the school bus' stop sign swings out, it means you.

Why do we feel hot and cold at the same time when we're sick?
-- Shannon Gavin, Lisle, Illinois

This is a little complicated. Under normal circumstances your core body temperature is maintained at a constant level by a glandular control center called the hypothalamic thermostat. During a fever, bacteria and degenerating body tissue give off substances known as pyrogens, which somehow cause the hypothalamic thermostat to ratchet up a notch. A host of physiological mechanisms then kicks in to elevate the body's temperature, which usually takes several hours. At the outset the body is way colder than the hypothalamus wants it to be, so although you're heating up, you feel cold, experiencing shivering, goose bumps, vasoconstriction of the skin (clamminess), et cetera. By and by you reach fever temperature, and the chills stop. When the fever breaks, the hypothalamic thermostat drops back to normal. You perspire, and, because of the vasodilation, your skin becomes flushed and hot, even though objectively you're cooling off. Sound a little complicated? All I can tell you is don't sweat it.

Is there something you need to get straight? Cecil Adams can deliver "The Straight Dope" on any topic. Write Cecil Adams at the Chicago Reader, 11 E. Illinois, Chicago, IL 60611; e-mail him at [email protected]; or visit "The Straight Dope" area at America Online, keyword: Straight Dope.

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Cecil Adams

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