School bus seat belts

NHTSA Calls For School Bus Seat Belts

In a surprise move this week, Mark Rosekind, the administrator of the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) called for the installation of seat belts on school buses. In a speech before the National Association for Pupil Transportation, Rosekind said “Seat belts are icons of safety, and that makes them the single most effective thing we can provide to improve the confidence of parents, policymakers and children.”

The move falls short of calling for federal regulations requiring the installation of seat belts and, instead, leaves it up to state or local officials to make the decision on whether seat belts should be installed in school buses.

The move came as a surprise to most who are involved in student transportation because NHTSA has remained quiet on the issue for years. The NHTSA website currently addresses school bus seat belts by saying “There is no question that seat belts play an important role in keeping occupants safe in these vehicles, however school buses are different by design and use a different kind of safety restraint system that works extremely well.” Instead of pushing for school bus seat belts, NHTSA has consistently stressed the design and safety record of school buses.

The fact that school buses are designed to be extremely safe and student school bus deaths are rare is an undisputed fact. However, the design safety built into school buses depends on the buses being involved in specific types of crashes; mostly frontal and rear-end crashes. Unfortunately, school buses aren’t limited to those types of crashes and a couple of crashes over the past several years have shown that bus construction isn’t enough to protect children in a crash.

In Houston, TX earlier this year, a school bus was struck and driven off an overpass, sending it plunging to the street below where it overturned. Two teenage old girls were killed in the crash and a twin brother and sister were seriously injured.

In March of 2012, an Indianapolis school bus driver and student were killed and ten other students were injured, two critically, when the bus driver suffered a heart attack and drove into a bridge abutment. An Indianapolis TV report contrasted that crash to a school bus crash a few weeks earlier in Chicago where a school bus veered off the road and flipped over. In the Chicago crash, no one was killed and injuries were minor. The difference for the Chicago school bus was that the State of Illinois law requires school bus seat belts and Indiana law doesn’t.

Only six states, California, Florida, Louisiana, New Jersey, New York, and Texas have laws requiring school bus seat belts. Most safety advocates feel that the lack of emphasis on school bus seat belts has more to do with economic than safety issues. Requiring school bus seat belts can add more than $5,000 to $7,000 to the cost of a new school bus. Some say that the low incidence of school bus related deaths doesn’t justify the costs of installing school bus seat belts but those people have never lost a child in a school bus crash.

Read more: NHTSA reverses course, now wants seat belts on school buses