Washoe County School District's fleet of buses drives more than five million miles every year. And while nearly every safety precaution is in place on those buses, there is one missing, and it is causing a heated debate.

Of the 330 buses in the Washoe County fleet, none of the full-sized buses have seatbelts. Channel 2 took the question to safety experts: Do the buses need seatbelts to be completely safe? And if so, why don't they have them yet?

"If there is an impact with another vehicle, normally they hit the lower level here," WCSD Transportation Director Rick Martin explained, gesturing to the side of a school bus. "The students are sitting up at this level here," he said, pointing to the passenger compartment.

Martin agreed to give Channel 2 a tour of the safety features on school buses.

"If something were to happen," Martin said, pointing to the roof exit, "[the students] could pop this exit, get out there."

While the district has put a lot of resources into safety, most of its buses still aren't equipped with seatbelts.

It is an issue experts say isn't as simple as one might think.

"The way the bus seats are configured, it's called compartmentalization," Nevada Highway Patrol Public Information Officer Chuck Allen said. NHP is the body responsible for safety inspections on school buses.

Compartmentalization is the system of high, padded seat backs and closely arranged seats that is supposed to shield students in an accident, without needing seatbelts. Serious crashes are rare, and since the buses are large and heavy, and they ride high, injuries are usually minor.

"The children riding in them are seated in a certain fashion where it's supposed to be safe all the time," Allen said.

But without seatbelts, there is no way to keep students in place if the bus rolls over. That's why several national agencies and parent organizations have called for seatbelts on all school buses since a study in 1999 showed that the compartmentalization technique wasn't effective in all crashes.

"We are depriving them of this essential appliance that could potentially prevent injury and save their lives," National Coalition for School Bus Safety President Dr. Alan Ross said.

But it's not just an issue of safety. Retrofitting Washoe County's fleet with seatbelts would cost up to $30,000 per bus. That totals millions of dollars, that the district, running a $32 million deficit, just can't afford.

"The standpoint is that it's a funding issue," Martin said. "It's going to be a major issue to try to do that."

However, a new bus already equipped with seatbelts only runs a few thousand dollars more than new buses without them. This makes it easier for districts to slowly phase in buses with full safety features.

Washoe County has replaced about a third of its fleet with new buses over the last five years, none of them with seatbelts.

When asked if it is the district's position that the school buses don't need seatbelts, Martin responded: "At this juncture, that would...well, I'll put it this way. It is a debate that is ongoing. It's a cost issue."

The smaller, special needs buses in Washoe County are equipped with seatbelts, as required by federal standards. Martin added that if his department found itself with a surplus of funds, seatbelts on the full-sized buses would be something he would consider.

Written by Arianna Bennett