School Bus Safety Draws New Scrutiny

school busFollowing a recent tragic school bus crash in Tennessee, there is renewed attention on school bus safety and, in particular, calls for requiring safety belts on all school buses. It is likely that lawmakers on both the federal and state level will be considering potential legislation on this issue.

The WASB is open to looking at ways to make school bus transportation safer, including more rigorous screening and training of school bus drivers, but the WASB membership has a long-standing position on school bus seat belt mandates.

Resolution 3.51 adopted by the 1986 Delegate Assembly, reads, “The WASB opposes legislation requiring all school buses to be equipped with seat belts for students.” This position is based primarily on the questionable safety merits along with the costs involved.

This issue was revisited at the 2014 Delegate Assembly, during which WASB member delegates rejected a proposal to support legislation mandating new school buses be equipped with safety belts provided the costs were covered by the state.

The merits of installing safety belts on school buses have been debated for decades. At the federal level, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) sets national standards for school bus safety and does not require seat belts on large school buses (over 10,000 pounds, which comprise more than 80% of the nation’s school bus fleet).  The NHTSA has had a series of studies on the topic going back to the 1970s but has always come back with the same conclusion: Recommending against a federal mandate for seat belts on large buses.  There have also been unsuccessful past efforts at the state level in Wisconsin for a safety belt mandate.

Some facts from the NHTSA website:

  • School buses are designed to be safer than passenger vehicles in avoiding crashes and preventing injury.
  • School buses are the safest mode of transportation for getting children back and forth to school.
  • In the United States, 23 million students take the bus to and from school each day. Nationally, school buses keep an annual estimated 17.3 million cars off roads surrounding schools each morning.
  • The greatest risk involved is not riding the school bus, but getting on and off the bus.
  • Currently, six states— California, Florida, Louisiana, New Jersey, New York and Texas—require safety belts on school buses. The other 44 states do not.

It should be noted that there is nothing (outside of cost) to prevent a school district  from equipping their school buses with safety belts or purchasing buses with safety belts if they choose. Individual school districts can voluntarily require large buses to have seat belts. For example, the Janesville School District has adopted a policy to require belts on all new buses utilized by the district.

With school budgets tight, cost concerns also factor in along with the safety merits.  To address this, the WASB would likely be supportive of a federal or state grant program to provide incentives for bus safety equipment, including seat belts, that districts could choose to apply for.