As of this writing, only 6 states require seat belts on school buses. New Jersey is one of those 6; Pennsylvania is not. In 2015, twelve additional states introduced legislation to require seat belts in all school buses. None of those bills have passed as of November, 2015.
It seems a bit odd that for many children who grew up strapped into child seats and shoulder harnesses every time they rode in a car, their first unsecured ride in a vehicle often happens on the first day of kindergarten. Since seat belts in school buses seem like a pretty obvious safety measure, one wonders what the problem is.
The answer is fairly simple, if not necessarily reasonable: money.
The Cost of Having Seat Belts on School Buses
The cost of outfitting a school bus with seat belts can run anywhere from $5,000 to almost $10,000. That’s roughly 10% of the total cost of the bus itself. Most seat belt systems also take up space that can impact the total capacity of students the bus can carry.
If you add up the cost of the restraining systems along with the potential need for more buses — required due to less capacity per bus — it’s clearly a major expense. With many school districts already strapped for cash, installing seat belts on buses is not even a serious consideration.
Nevertheless, whatever the cost, it would seem to be a small price to pay for the safety of our school children — at least that’s what just about anybody would think.
How Safe Are School Buses?
In 2008, the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) implemented a rule requiring new school buses of 10,000 pounds or less to have lap/shoulder belts. Up until that time, only lap belts were required in these smaller buses.
So why only the smaller capacity, shorter buses?
First of all, statistically speaking, large, full-size school buses are safe. According to the NHTSA, school buses are the safest form of ground transportation in the country. On the average, 6 school children die each year in school bus related accidents, far less than the 2,000 or so who fall victim to automobile accidents.
Based on those numbers, a fatal accident is far more likely to happen when riding to school in the family car. Indeed, the National Safety Council asserts that school buses can be as much as 40 times safer than a car.
There is no questioning the fact that school buses are remarkably safe vehicles, among the safest on the road. The larger, “standard size” school bus is a heavy vehicle, designed with a passive safety system called compartmentalization.
Bus seats are positioned close to one another for more than just capacity reasons — the seats themselves are safety devices. Covered with a thick layer of foam, a bus seat absorbs much of the energy of an impact when a child hits it. The seats are also designed to remain affixed to the vehicle body so they don’t become projectiles in an accident.
Should School Buses Have Seat Belts
Other than cost, another issue that opponents of school bus safety belts raise is that of compliance. The argument is that simply because a school bus has seat belts and that every child is required to wear one, doesn’t mean that they will.
School bus drivers already have their hands full, operating the bus and maintaining order among the young passengers. Many people feel that it is simply unrealistic to imagine that bus drivers will be able to enforce a seat belt requirement if the children don’t want to wear them.
Where things become a little strange is that the NHTSA — one of the most vocal and passionate advocates of the need for seat belts in cars — had strongly opposed the use of seat belts in large school buses. The NHTSA’s opposition to mandated seat belts in school buses goes back for as long as the matter has been publicly debated.
Then, early in November, 2015, the NHTSA abruptly reversed itself. The new policy is crystal clear: every child on every school bus should have a three-point seat belt. The administrator of the NHTSA went on to say that the position of the organization is that seat belts save lives.
One can only wonder what has caused this dramatic and very sudden shift in policy.
Headed in the Right Direction
With the NHTSA’s new position, progress has clearly been made. However, there is still a long way to go. The NHTSA has so far stopped short of issuing a ruling requiring seat belts on school buses. To do so would require the initiation of a rule-making proposal to mandate seat belts, which has not yet happened.
Instead, the agency is conducting more research into school bus safety and is reaching out to officials in the states that currently require seat belts. The objective is to develop best practices for rolling out school bus seat belt regulations nationwide. Until that happens, children riding to school will not be wearing seat belts.
As a parent, perhaps you find this disturbing. Nobody likes to think that their children are at risk of injury, in any form, due to economic pressures. Who is to blame that seat belts are not yet required on school buses? Is it the government, the companies that make the buses, the school districts who buy the buses, or all of the above?
Who Is Responsible If Your Child Is Involved in an Accident?
The bottom line is that, particularly in light of the new NHTSA position, in the event of an accident, somebody must bear responsibility for keeping school buses as safe as possible. As a parent, you trust that when your child gets on their school bus, she or he will be totally safe. And generally, that will be the case.
In the unlikely event that an accident does occur, and your child is injured or worse, be sure to seek legal representation. The attorneys at Donaghue & Labrum have years of experience and expert advice to help you and your family through a difficult situation such as this.