When parents load their kids up in the car, they remind everyone to buckle up. You might think the same thing is happening on their school bus, but that may not be true. About 25 million children ride a school bus each year, logging in 5.7 billion miles. And although school buses are built to be safer for passengers even without using seat belts, the lack of seat belt use on school buses comes as a surprise to many adults.
The statistics support the fact that buses are constructed with safety in mind: seats are close together and the seatbacks are high, designed to absorb energy in a crash. It is also true that an average of only six student passengers dies in crashes involving school buses annually, compared to 2,000 children in car crashes. Even so, it doesn’t seem like the use of seat belts on school buses would be a controversial one if they could save the lives of even a few children each year.
Eight states currently require the installation of seat belts on school buses: Arkansas, California, Florida, Louisiana, Nevada, New Jersey, New York, and Texas. Three of those states (Arkansas, Louisiana, and Texas) subject the installation to the availability of funding or the denial of local jurisdictions. The remainder of US states has no such laws mandating belts on school buses. Our children need to be protected, but substantive laws aren’t being passed to do that. Why not?
One of the major roadblocks to mandating seat belt installation has been money. The NTSB has said adding seat belts would cost between $7,346 and $10,296 per bus, plus with the addition of the seat belts, the capacity of each bus would be lessened. It’s not a simple re-tool to add the restraint systems, as it calls for thicker seatbacks and thus fewer rows of seats. And the NTSB has maintained that school buses are safe without restraint systems, anyway.
“Given the trade-off between installing seat belts…and implementing other safety measures that could benefit pupil transportation or other social welfare initiatives, and given that large school buses are already very safe,” NHTSA stated in 2008, “we believe that states should be permitted the choice of deciding whether belts should be part of their large school bus purchases.”
But by 2015, the agency reevaluated its position. NHTSA administrator Rosekind said the agency now believes “that every child on every school bus should have a three-point seat belt.” The agency committed to achieving this goal through gathering better information on the safety benefits of seat belts where they are required. Then, in May 2018, the agency recommended that states “enact legislation to require that all new large school buses be equipped with passenger lap/shoulder belts for all passenger seating positions.”
Even so, there is still no federal mandate for seat belt installation or usage on school buses. This means that every day, children board school buses with no seat belts. The statistics support the idea that these buses are built for safety, but one child lost is too many, especially if that child is yours. It is to the advantage of parents to keep up with these laws and advocate for change. In the meantime, educating children about safe practices on a school bus and seeking legal help when necessary can keep kids safe on the way to and from school.