School Bus Safety is Stuck in Idle

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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.)

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4 comments to “School Bus Safety is Stuck in Idle”

  1. Deborah Davis Stewart

    Thanks to Ben Kelley for his clear defense of seat belts on school buses. As one of the petitioning organizations, I want to mention the role of seat belts in roll-over protection; roll-overs are quite common among school bus crashes due to their high center of gravity. In our petition, we asked NHTSA to look beyond pure cost-benefit to the other benefits that are harder to measure perhaps, but have never been adequately studied. Other benefits Prof. Grzebleta mentioned in his response:
    1) formation/preservation of the habit of using a seat belt. In the U.S. the use of seat belts drops markedly among school-aged children and teens.
    2) better discipline on buses with seat belts, leading many bus drivers who were previously opposed to change their minds.
    There’s more to a school bus ride than simply getting to and from school but NHTSA doesn’t seem to acknowledge this.
    Deborah Stewart, Safe Ride News Publications

  2. Jason Burzynski

    “While mandating seat belts on large buses could save a number of lives annually, the costs would likely outweigh the benefits.”

    Try telling ^that^ to anyone who has lost a loved one in a school bus related crash.

    I will be bringing my daughter to school in MY vehicle next year so I can be sure she has the proper protection.

    Our federal government subsidizes and gives money to thousands on organizations, if cost is the only thing stopping the bus operators from doing this, then why not give them some funding as well?

  3. Prof. Raphael Grzebieta

    The response from NHTSA is quite dissapointing. We have mandated seat belts in Australia for all new buses used for transporting shool children.

    I agree that the road safety track record of school buses shows that buses without belts are still very safe. However the education argument is an overwhelming one for the US. I and other experts attribute the recent stunning drop in fatalities to three factors (and no I don’t have the data to prove it but NHTSA should investigate it): the greater number of people wearing seat belts (this accounted for the single greatest effect in the fall of Australian road deaths back in 1970 when wearing of seat belts was made mandatory); the introduction of Electronic Stability Control on all new vehicles (reduces rollover and assists in swerving and cornering); and the Global Financial Crisis (less people travelling).

    Introduction of seat belts into school buses into any new buses in the US would have a cost but a large educational benefit. The arguements for and again have been argued by Langford and Congui. They cite on page 5 of this independant study:
    http://www.austroads.com.au/pdf/TestMethod2/5._Fitting_seat_belts_to_school_buses__Sep_06_.pdf

    “Proponents of widespread fitting of seat belts to school buses frequently advance the following arguments:

    - The life-saving and injury-reducing potential of safety belts in a moving vehicle cannot be denied. Seat belts in buses will keep children in their seats and thereby prevent them being thrown about within the vehicle or ejected from the vehicle.

    - Teaching children to buckle up in motor vehicles is a sound strategy to reduce crash fatalities and injuries. Use of seat belts in school buses will reinforce the educational messages aimed at school-age youngsters and have a carryover effect.

    - Proper use of seat belts will improve student behaviour on the bus, reduce driver distraction, and may thereby translate into accidents avoided.”

    They go on to discuss the counter-argument to these claims.

    I for one think we should be teaching our children how to buckle up from a young age. We have a seat belt wearing rate of around 99.6% and still we see around 20 to 30% of our fatalities people not wearing their seat belts. I suspect in the US these numbers would be much larger. The trauma from people not bothering to wear their seat belts is a huge cost to our respective countries. By the way have a look at this
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BNmr-rVx7C4
    Believe it or not – no children were hurt. However what if they were wearing seat belts? It is not clear what injuries would be sustained.

  4. Response from NHTSA

    The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is committed to ensuring the safety of drivers and passengers of all ages. When it comes to children in particular, NHTSA is continually evaluating the ways we transport our youngest and most vulnerable citizens to make sure we get them from place to place in the safest ways possible.

    Large school buses are already one of the safest forms of transportation available. Riding in a large school bus is significantly safer than walking, riding a bicycle, or being driven to school in a car. The special design of large school buses – which involves the compartmentalization of passengers who are divided by tall and flexible seat backs that cushion them in the event of a crash – means children are kept safer than they would be in any other type of vehicle. With their long crash pulse which absorbs more impact in a crash, large school buses are even more safe than small school buses. This difference is one reason NHTSA requires seat belts on small school buses and not on their larger counterparts.

    While mandating seat belts on large buses could save a number of lives annually, the costs would likely outweigh the benefits. In fact, NHTSA’s analysis of the impact of such a regulation found that deaths and injuries could actually rise as school districts managing the higher costs of buses equipped with seat belts decided to provide fewer buses – and students and families were left with other, less safe forms of transportation, such as a bike or passenger car.

    Ultimately, child passenger safety remains a top priority for NHTSA. As we work to keep our children safe on our roadways, it’s critical that we do not unintentionally put them at risk by reducing the use of large school buses overall.

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