Why Are Seat Belts Still Missing from School Buses?

Do your kids ride the school bus?

The most recognizable vehicles on the road are undeniably the safest way for students to travel to school—about seven times safer. And that’s with their current status of being a seatbelt-free zone.

Buses sheer size, bright coloring and built-in stop signs with flashing lights make it a caution sign on wheels while heavily padded and compartmentalized seats act as air bags. Despite these facts, however, there’s still one question—the question—about school bus safety that refuses to quiet down.

Why don’t they have seat belts?

Throughout the 90s and early 2000s many researchers tested the idea of adding seat belts and all came to the same few conclusions. The most damaging to the pro-seat belt community: seat belts could actually hurt children involved in accidents more than if they weren’t wearing them.

That conclusion came from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), the organization responsible for enhancing transportation safety. In a 2002 report, they found lap belts and misused shoulder belts could cause neck or abdominal injuries in a severe frontal crash, outweighing any benefits of properly worn ones.

This followed suit with their lifelong policy of not supporting federally mandated seat belts in school buses. Until last November…

“Seat belts save lives. That is true whether in a passenger car or in a big yellow bus,” Mark Rosekind said during his National Association for Pupil Transportation Systems speech. “And saving lives is what we are about.” Rosekind is the NHTSA administrator, elected January 2015.

And with that, and a few more hundred words, the new NHTSA stance was in support of three-point seat belts on school buses. But why?

Prior to this announcement, six states, including Florida, passed laws to add seat belts for school buses.

Two Daytona Beach accident attorneys and a data visualization company, 1Point21 Interactive, recently analyzed Florida school bus crashes between 2012 and 2015, using data from the  Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicle. They compiled a list of the counties with the most crashes and found school bus accidents were actually increasing—by about 16 percent throughout the state. One county doubled the amount of school bus related accidents and another five increased by more than 50 percent.

However, injuries in these same crashes decreased by eleven percent overall.

Florida’s seat belt law stated all buses purchased in 2001 and on had to come with lap belts (not lap/shoulder belts as the NHTSA now wants) and gave priority of these buses to elementary schools.

Correlation or causation?

The researchers don’t draw any concrete conclusions; but, the lap belts are a plausible explanation for the decline in injuries. Florida also has five other safety features all school buses must meet like fire retardant seating, dual stop signal arms so children must pass in visible sight of the driver and additional emergency exits for swift evacuations.

So the debate continues. In the same month as NHTSA’s announcement, USA Today interviewed a child safety advocate with The Players Center for Child Health at Wolfson Children’s Hospital who mostly agreed with past research.

“It truly depends on the nature of the crash,” Tina Lewis told USA Today. “There are going to be broken nose and knocked out teeth but those are fixable…Seat belt injuries can and sometimes are fatal injuries.”

A 60 pound child in a 30mph crash would have 18,000 pounds of force going into their abdomen, Lewis explained. And with no bones to stop the lap belt, it would continue until potentially damaging internal organs or in extreme cases, spinal fractures or separation.

Three crashes in Florida each had over 40 injuries in 2015 and there were 25 fatalities statewide from 2012 to 2015. Unfortunately, just from the raw data it’s impossible to see the cause of the injuries or deaths beyond a crash.

Given the two simple facts of increased accidents and decreased injuries, Florida is probably a good state for the NHTSA to do a thorough investigation. Would shoulder belts prevented some of these injuries or no? Would having no seat belts spared trips to the hospital or did seat belts actually prevent some fatalities?

Another argument against seat belts is money—though it’s safe to assume most parents wouldn’t care if it would protect their precious cargo. In a 2010 study, the University of Alabama concluded the costs of adding seat belts would far exceed the benefits while a Texas A&M University study wrote seat belts “should not be considered an all-purpose preventative measure.”

And A&M has a point—the most dangerous part of riding a school bus is actually walking to or de-boarding the bus. This is mostly because many accidents are caused by other passenger vehicles sharing the road with school buses. The Florida Department of Education, for example, surveys bus drivers annually one day a year on how many cars illegally pass them. Less drivers completed the survey in 2015 than in 2014, yet more illegal passing was reported.

So the debate continues.

Florida State Sen. Rob Bradley told USA Today last November he would look into the reasoning for NHTSA’s push for three-point seat belts and if it becomes the standard and proven to make kids safer, it should be done regardless of cost.

For now, around one million kids ride the bus to and from school every year in the U.S. On average, eight school-aged pedestrians are killed and four by vehicles.

So what side of the debate are you on?

71 comments

Sarah Hill
Sarah Hill2 years ago

If seat belts save lives in cars, they will save lives on buses. It's more about the money than safety.

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Nellie K Adaba
Nellie K Adaba2 years ago

Same thing with regular public buses don't have seatbelts.

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Jim Ven
Jim Ven2 years ago

thanks for sharing.

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natasha salgado
Past Member 2 years ago

Seat belts should be mandatory period.

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Nathan D.
Nathan D2 years ago

Seat belts save lives!

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Teresa Antela
Teresa Antela2 years ago

Noted

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Mark muc
Mark p.muc2 years ago

thx

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Alexandra D. P.
Alexandra P2 years ago

If all children require seat belts in all other cars & trucks, even some other bus lines, it
seems crazy to exempt school buses. In some school bus accidents, kids have been thrown through the air! Reduce spending on Pentagon & military waste and there's
the money for this & a whole lot more.

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Joanna M.
Joanna M2 years ago

Adding to Ron A.G.'s comments...only selected buses have monitors, usually ones with the smallest children or with kids that have special needs. We often get calls from parents wanting to know why EVERY bus can't have monitors. Ideally, of course that would happen; but it really boils down to money (like everything in life). Districts would have to pay all these monitors, and it would likely have to be $20-30/hour, just like crossing guards, because otherwise who would want to work for just a few hours, and split shifts at that? Volunteers are an option, but that too has its problems, e.g. they would still have to be fingerprinted and all that, like regular employees; and you'd have to make sure the person was reliable and committed to being there every day, which is difficult to enforce when someone isn't being paid. So it's tough no matter how you look at it.

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Joanna M.
Joanna M2 years ago

Again, coming from the POV of working in school transportation...parents are not allowed on buses (no adults other than driver or school personnel are, simply because we don't know who someone really is; just because someone is Johnny's mom or dad doesn't mean they can't also be a sex offender). So it would fall to the driver to be buckling all the smallest children.

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