History of School Bus Seat Belt Legislation and Studies

dreamstime_m_71523833The merits of installing safety belts on school buses have been debated for decades.

The last time legislation was introduced on this subject in Wisconsin was during the 2013-14 session, when Sen. Tim Cullen (D-Janesville), a former member of the Janesville School Board—which, to our knowledge, is the only school board in the state that requires all of its school buses to be equipped with safety belts–authored 2013 Senate Bill 304.  (The proposed amendment to Resolution 3.51 considered at the 2014 Delegate Assembly and described in the main blog post was in response to this legislation.)

2013 Senate Bill 304 would have required all school buses weighing more than 10,000 pounds and manufactured on or after a date approximately six months after the effective date of the bill to be equipped with 3-point (lap-shoulder) safety belts. The bill also would have required the Wisconsin Department of Transportation’s administrative rules relating to the design and construction of school buses to include this requirement. Finally, the bill would have established a grant program to defray the costs to school districts that provide pupil transportation on school buses equipped with safety belts.

Federal Regulation

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), which sets national standards for school bus safety, requires seat belts on small school buses but does not require seat belts on large school buses (those that weigh more than 10,000 pounds), which comprise more than 80 percent of the nation’s school bus fleet. However, individual states and school districts can voluntarily require large buses to have seat belts if they choose. The Janesville School District has adopted a policy to require seat belts on all newly manufactured school buses utilized by the district.

The NHTSA first established regulations for school bus occupants in 1976. Although it considered requiring seat belts on large school buses, the agency decided at that time that “compartmentalization” would prove more reliable. “Compartmentalization” refers to the use of high-backed, flexible seats designed to absorb passenger impacts in relatively closely-spaced rows. Passengers can also enter and exit the bus more quickly when they are not restrained by safety belts.

While compartmentalization protects passengers against front-end collisions, it is less effective when the bus is struck from the side and in roll-over accidents, a point often made by safety belt advocates.

In general, school buses are designed and built to protect students whether or not safety belts are utilized.

There have been conflicting reports and evidence over the years on whether the benefits of potentially preventing injuries by installing safety belts in school buses are outweighed by the dangers these restraints may pose when students need to exit/evacuate a bus as quickly as possible in the event of an emergency such as in the recent bus fire in Richland Center. (See news coverage)

Some facts from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (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.

Past Studies

Because three-point belt systems were not available for large buses until the early 2000s, most large school buses that had seatbelts during the time period when the earliest studies were conducted had lap belts.

A 2002 NHTSA study found that lap belts helped keep passengers on large school buses in their seat compartment in a crash, but increased the risk of neck injury. Three-point belts offered the greatest degree of safety when properly used, but could increase the risk of injury when not used properly.

Based on that 2002 study, the NHTSA estimated that three-point systems could save about two lives and prevent about 1,900 injuries each year if every child wore one on every trip. However, it noted, school districts would have to ensure that student passengers wore the belts, and wore them correctly.

A 2007 report by Congressional Research Service (CRS) notes that several studies have found that lap belts “are of uncertain benefit.” The CRS report noted that 3-point systems do provide a benefit, but adding them is costly, and additionally may reduce seating capacity because three-point systems take up more space than lap belts. (Opponents of installing safety belts contend that, unless more school buses were added, these “displaced” students would have to find other ways to get to school that are inherently more dangerous than the school bus.)

NHTSA Statements

In the past, when the safety belt issue has come before it, the NHTSA has generally opined that large school buses have an excellent safety record and that adding safety belts would provide very little improvement at significant cost.

However, in a marked departure from this position, in a November 8, 2015, speech to the National Association for Pupil Transportation, the head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), Administrator Mark R. Rosekind, said children should be wearing seat belts while riding on school buses.

Adopting a new position, Rosekind said, “Every child on every school bus should have a three-point seat belt.”

“Our position is that seat belts save lives,” Rosekind said. “That is true in a passenger car or a big, yellow bus.”

Still, Rosekind stopped short of announcing any rulemaking. Instead, he said that NHTSA would take “a series of steps to move this forward.”  Those steps will include further research into the issue — for example, studying jurisdictions that are currently using three-point belts on school buses — and trying to determine how to overcome the financial barriers — three-point belts currently add about $7,000 to $10,000 to the cost of a large school bus.

Prior to Rosekind’s November 2015 comments, the agency’s best advice on the matter of seat belts in large school buses — superseding all other guidance — had  been contained in a single document: the Aug. 25, 2011, denial of a petition from the Center for Auto Safety (CAS) and others requesting that NHTSA mandate seat belts in large school buses.

Here are some are statements from that document that stand out:

  • “NHTSA has considered the question of whether seat belts should be required on large school buses from the inception of compartmentalization and the school bus safety standards and has reassessed its decisions repeatedly. Each time, after analyzing the implications of a seat belt requirement and all available information, we have concluded that a seat belt requirement for large school buses has not been shown to be warranted.”
  • “In large school buses, fatal rollover crashes are rare (approximately 1 crash per year, resulting in 2 fatalities annually), as are fatal side impact crashes in which seat belts would have prevented death or serious injury. Fatal non-rollover frontal crashes in large school buses are uncommon (less than 1 crash per year). Large school buses are already very safe vehicles. More important … requiring seat belts on large school buses is likely to have the effect of increasing fatalities related to school transportation.”
  • “After considering all views [including a recommendation by the NTSB — H-99-46], we could not agree with those asking us to propose to require seat belts on large school buses. We assessed the safety need for seat belts. Since school buses are already very safe and are the safest mode of school transportation, a seat belt mandate would result in very few benefits.”
  • “We determined that it would be inappropriate for NHTSA to require seat belts given the low safety need for the belts, when such a decision has a direct bearing on the ability of the local decision-makers to allocate and spend limited pupil transportation resources on other school transportation safety needs that are likely to garner greater benefits, perhaps at lower cost.”
  • “It is true that seat belts have been proven beneficial in rollover crashes. However, real world data show that school bus passenger fatalities and injuries in rollover events are rare. The CAS petition cites two school bus accidents in support of its position that there is a safety need for seat belts on large school buses. We cannot agree that citing these rare instances of fatal rollover crashes forms the basis for a finding of a problem of national significance that warrants trumping local policymaking on this matter.”
  • “We believe that it is most appropriate if the decision to order seat belts on large school buses were left to the States and local jurisdictions rather than to NHTSA. States and local school districts are better able to recognize and analyze school transportation risks particular to their areas and identify approaches to best manage and reduce those safety risks. Local officials are in the best position to decide whether to purchase seat belts, since the officials must weigh a multitude of unique considerations bearing on purchasing decisions, especially when faced with budgetary constraints.”

In 2008, when the NHTSA considered the matter, the federal agency debated whether requiring the installation of these systems to “an already very safe vehicle [would be] reasonable and appropriate when the cost of installing and maintaining lap/shoulder belts…could impact the ability of transportation providers to transport children to or from school or related events or spend funds on other avenues affecting pupil safety.”

The agency concluded that state and local school authorities should consider installing 3-point systems on large buses only if there would be no reduction in the number of children riding these buses to and from school.

“Given the trade-off between installing seat belts…and implementing other safety measures that could benefit pupil transportation or other social welfare initiatives,” NHTSA stated in its 2008 rule, “and given that large school buses are already very safe, we believed that states should be permitted the choice of deciding whether belts should be part of their large school bus purchases.”

In April 2009, the NHTSA upgraded its school safety belt requirements by:

(1) increasing the height of seat backs on all school buses from 20 inches to 24 inches above seat-level to better protect students in a crash from being injured by passengers seated behind them;

(2) setting performance standards for voluntarily installed three-point belts in large school buses; and

(3) requiring small school buses to have three-point, rather than lap, belts.

The seat belt requirements apply to buses manufactured on and after October 21, 2011. The seat back requirement applies to buses manufactured on and after October 21, 2009.

In the end, the NHTSA rule left the decision of whether to equip large school buses with seat belts up to individual states and districts.