Currently, only six states require that school buses have seatbelts and/or shoulder restraints for their occupants. These six states are:
- New York
- New Jersey
This is surprising, considering that 30 states in the US consider a passenger in a car at any age without a seatbelt a primary offense (meaning that the driver could be subject to a large fine). So, why are school buses exempt to these basic safety rules?
Many states have already tried to pass bills that would require that school buses have built-in safety belts. However, none of the 30 bills introduced into legislation in the past year have received a vote on the house floor. For example, Nebraska Sen. Robert Hilkemann attempted to vote in Hilkemann’s Bill which would require all schools to have seatbelts built into each new school bus. The counterargument used to stall Hilkemann’s Bill was that the cost of installing safetybelts on new school buses would significantly increase their cost, seatbelts may cause issues of evacuation in the case of a fire, and that school buses are already considered one of the safest vehicles on the road. Hilkemann is planning on reintroducing the Bill in 2017.
Statistically, school buses are one of safest means of transportation. According to a study released by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) in 2014, only 55 school bus occupants were fatally injured in school bus crashes between 2003 and 2012. The reason that school buses are so safe is because of their size, high visibility, and the use of compartmentalization. Compartmentalization refers to the small amount of space between a bus’ padded seats that reduces the amount of damage caused to passengers in the event of a crash.
The Problem With Current School Bus Safety Standards
While it is true that school bus fatalities are extremely rare, that doesn’t mean that they don’t happen. A case in Nebraska, the same case that drove Hilkemann to write his bill, shows the effects that a lack of school bus safety can have. On October 13, 2001, a school bus filled with parents and children fell 50 feet off of a bridge in Omaha, killing three children and a parent. In instances such as these, seat belts could have easily prevented some of the deaths and most of the injuries involved.
The NHTSA has even sided in favor of not mandating seatbelts in school buses in previous years because the cost of a new school bus with seat belts is nearly $10,000 more than one without seatbelts. Although, recently the NHTSA Administrator, Mark Rosekind, has changed sides on the matter stating “Seat belts save lives, and that includes seat belts on school buses. Commitment to a simple principle — that all kids deserve seat belts on their school bus — must guide all of us.” This change of attitude by the NHTSA towards school bus safety may fuel efforts to introduce more state bills to mandate the use of school bus seat belts.
The reality is that the price of fitting new school buses with seat belts could never outweigh the price for child safety. Even if school bus seat belts only manage to save one life, it would still be worth the financial cost.