Regarding an issue that has spanned decades, the head of the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) made an announcement on October 8 of 2015 that the federal agency now supports seat belts in school buses around the nation.
An average of 24 million children ride school buses each year and about six die in bus accidents, according to the NHTSA. In comparison, about 800 children die every year walking, biking, or being driven to school in cars, says the NHTSA’s deputy director, Ron Medford.
Buses are currently equipped to keep students safe with a method called “compartmentalization” where the seats are close together and covered with four-inch thick foam to create a protective cocoon around students.
While this has been proven to keep students safe from head on and rear crashes, it fails to keep students safe if a school bus rolls over. Students are also seated high enough that it’s harder for vehicles to damage the seating area in case of a collision.
The NHTSA previously stated that seat belts were too costly and that buses were safe without seat belts. Outfitting a new school bus with seat belts can cost anywhere between $5,485 and $7,346, depending on the number of seats and the type of seat belt, according to the NHTSA.
“Without seat belts on buses, there is a gaping, obvious hole in our safety measures that sparks questions all of us have to answer. With seat belts, we can build momentum for student pedestrian safety, enhanced enforcement, and more,” said Mark Rosekind, an NHTSA Administrator in a speech to the National Association for Pupil Transportation.
Advocates for seat belts on school buses use the cases of rollovers and side collisions as evidence that children are not safe without seat belts. Possible issues with seat belts are also often dismissed or justified, instead, the safety of parents children is brought up.
Those against school bus seat belts argue that seat belts could hinder students abilities to evacuate or slow them down in the case of emergency evacuations. Also, finding a way to adjust seat belts to children of different sizes, passenger compliance, and the maintenance of seat belts would all be an issue.
Currently, only six states have varying seat belt laws for school buses: Florida, New York, Texas, California, Louisiana, and New Jersey. State laws in Florida require new buses purchased after December 31, 2000, to be equipped with seat belts.
Florida state laws also require students on belt-equipped buses to wear the seat belts properly fastened and adjusted while the bus is in motion. Despite this, no one is held accountable in the case of personal injury to passengers not wearing a seat belt.
If the NHTSA succeeds in getting the three-point harness seat belt on school buses across the nation- overcoming fears about costs, evacuations, and other dangers- the next issue would be making sure they’re actually worn.