School Bus Safety Is Stuck in Idle

Children typically get an earful if they neglect to put on their seat belts. But many kids who ride a school bus can’t buckle up even if they want to. And that situation isn’t going to change anytime soon.

That’s because the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration recently rejected a petition filed by safety and medical groups to require safety belts on school buses. The decision came in time for National Child Safety Week (Sept. 18-24), when NHTSA will stress the need for kids to buckle up.

The denial, though, has sent a very different and troubling message to school-age kids: Maybe belts aren’t really all that important.

NHTSA seems to think that while safety belts are essential in all other vehicles, in school buses a mandate is untenable. Requiring belts would increase costs sufficiently to force reductions in bus capacity and thus divert pupils to less safe forms of transportation – or so the agency speculates. It wants to leave the decision to local authorities, saying a national standard would “not be appropriate.”

Requiring safety belts for pupils is hardly an extreme idea. Six states, including the two most populous, California and Texas, have already done it.

Moreover, for more than 10 years the National Transportation Safety Board – the national authority on transportation safety – has been urging NHTSA to adopt a federal requirement. The evidence in school bus crashes it has investigated has convinced the board of the need for safety belts. And for more than 10 years, NHTSA has chosen to reject the NTSB recommendation.

The petition was prompted by a bus crash last year in Hartford in which students were thrown violently around as the vehicle plummeted into a ravine. One died and 16 were injured. Granting the petition would not have forced NHTSA to adopt a regulation, but merely to hear arguments, pro and con, from school districts, parents, health and safety advocates, or anyone else with an interest in the issue. By denying it, the agency has effectively shut its ears to those voices.

It also appears to be giving short shrift to the harm caused by school bus crashes—not only fatalities, which the agency stresses are low, but serious injuries. Of many hundreds of injuries per year, NHTSA estimates that only about 60 are serious–a low-ball figure according to data from the American Academy of Pediatrics. Serious injuries can include brain trauma, paraplegia and quadriplegia.

Underlying the no-belts stance is the cost question. The agency says it doesn’t use cost-benefit analyses in considering school bus regulations but its reasoning in this case shows otherwise. Buses with belts will cost more, forcing districts to buy fewer of them. Belt designs may reduce per-bus seating capacity. Students may thus be forced to use riskier ways to get to school, such as in family cars, NHTSA says.

If NHTSA has tested its assumptions against the real-world experience of states that require safety belts, it hasn’t said so. But a state education official in California, which has required safety belts since 2005, told me that despite higher per-bus costs, there has been no loss of capacity attributable to the law, which has stimulated bus manufacturers to develop new belt and seat designs that increase capacity while performing effectively.

Asked about the impact on child safety, this official noted that some safety-conscious parents previously drove their children to school because they were afraid to let the children ride on buses that lacked belts. “Now they put their kids on the buses,” the official said, describing the law as “a success.”

Recently two scholarly papers warned that the United States is lagging behind European countries in reducing traffic deaths and injuries. Europe has been requiring lap-shoulder belts in buses, including school buses, since 2004. NHTSA needs to take a new look at its stance against seat belts – one that is based less on cost-benefit speculation and more on the overall well-being of children.

Ben Kelley, a former Department of Transportation official, is on the board of the Center for Auto Safety and works with the Trauma Foundation, two of the groups that petitioned for a school bus seat belt rule.

This commentary also appeared in also appeared in FairWarning, a nonprofit, online investigative news organization focused on safety and health issues

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