Should School Buses Have Seatbelts?

Q: Why are there no seatbelts in school buses, public transit buses, or private transportation vehicles like charter buses? In regard to these transportation types, we still seem to be in the “let ‘em fly” era, when car occupants – kids and all – were just loose cargo going every which way in the event of a crash.

A: You just brought up a four billion dollar question. But I’m getting ahead of myself. First, the good news for seatbelt advocates: In 2013, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) announced that commercial carrier buses (the ones you hire or buy a ticket to ride on) would be required to have seatbelts, starting in 2016. The rule only applies to new buses, and does not apply to public transit buses or school buses.

The big debate is really around school buses, and it’s hard for people not to get emotional and passionate when we discuss the safety of our kids. Advocates for seatbelts in school buses say it’s an obvious solution to saving lives. Opponents argue that adding seatbelts to buses is an unnecessary expense that could actually cost more lives. Sound counter-intuitive? I’ll explain.

The data on seatbelts saving lives is so conclusive that anyone who debates it has to be willfully denying reality. Crash survival rates are directly connected with seatbelt use. Those against adding seatbelts to buses don’t disagree. Instead, one argument comes from some research showing that putting seatbelts into school buses would reduce seating capacity, forcing some students to use other transportation options to get to school. Since school buses are the safest way to get to school, decreasing school bus ridership puts more students at higher risk. I’m a little skeptical about this argument, but I’m not a school transportation expert either. Maybe it’s true.

Even without seatbelts, putting your children on a school bus is much safer than driving them to school. In a NHTSA study that reviewed a 10 year span of school travel, researchers  found that on average, 625 children are killed each year traveling to and from school. Of those children, four were traveling on a school bus. 490 were occupants in a car.

School buses utilize a method called compartmentalization to protect passengers. Simply, compartmentalization means using tall, padded seats with limited space between rows to keep kids in their seating area during a crash. This works pretty well in front and rear crashes, but it’s lousy for side impact and roll-over crashes. Adding seat belts would certain better protect passengers in those last two types of crashes, undoubtedly saving lives.

So far seven states in the US have made seatbelts on school buses mandatory, but in at least two states there is a catch. Their new seatbelt laws only take effect once the state has the funding to upgrade the buses. And that’s really what it comes down to. If adding the seatbelts was free I don’t think there would be any resistance, but with limited resources schools and communities have to decide if it’s worth it.

It’s a big decision. The cost estimate for adding seatbelts to a new school bus is around $8000. Multiply that by the number of buses in a school district and you can see how this becomes a major financial hurdle. Across the US there are an estimated 500,000 school buses. If NHTSA were to require every school bus in the country to have seatbelts, we’d have a four billion dollar funding problem.

Despite the cost, there is at least some desire to change the law in our state. During the last legislative session in Washington a legislator proposed a requirement for seatbelts on school buses. The bill didn’t pass, but that doesn’t mean it won’t be proposed in the future.

It seems callous to reduce the safety of our children to a cost/benefit analysis, but when it comes to seatbelts on school buses, it’s a reality. With a four billion dollar price tag, some people wonder if children would be better served by spending that money elsewhere. For the states that have their new law tied to funding, some people wonder if that money even exists.

Adding seatbelts to school buses may only save a couple bus riders a year, but I think the long-term impact could be significant. Requiring kids to wear seatbelts on their ride to school reinforces a safe behavior that they’ll be more likely to take with them into adulthood, when they’re driving their own cars. And If you’ve ever looked at young driver crash statistics, you know that’s the riskiest driving period in a driver’s life.

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