Last week, my son Harry started kindergarten. He and his pals loaded on the bus and went to school for the day. When they got to their after-school program, the teachers asked the kids what they did that day. Five-year-old Wesley’s response was at the top of the list: “We didn’t wear seat belts on the bus.”
We have obsessively trained our children to buckle their seat belts from the moment they’re able to. If I try and pull away from a parking spot and Harry’s not buckled in, he lets me know loud and clear. From the first moment they enter an automobile, today’s kids are lashed in place with more protection than Neil Armstrong had when he went to the moon.
Yet, five years later, many American kids board the school bus and sit on a sheet of upholstered plywood without as much as a lap belt, and we hardly question it.
When you do start to try and figure out why, you run into a mass of conflicting evidence and a decided lack of direction from NHTSA, the Department of Transportation’s agency focused on highway traffic safety.
While car manufacturers around the world have gone to great lengths to make their cars safer, school buses are essentially exempt from such basic equipment, except for the driver.
Federal Motor Vehicle Standard 222 is the U.S. federal government that originally required passive restraint and more stringent structural integrity standards for school buses instead of requiring lap seat belts. It was enacted in 1977. The passive restraint standards exempted school buses with a gross vehicle weight (GVWR) of over 10,000 pounds from requiring seat belts.
A revision to FMVSS 222 was supposed to take effect in 2011 that required three-point restorations, but FMVSS 222 today only includes “voluntary” seat belt adoption. The revised standard also introduces standards for testing lap/shoulder belt-equipped bus seats and the anchor points for the optional installation of these seat-belt systems in large school buses, but never required belts to be added.
Four states — Florida, Louisiana, New Jersey and New York — require two-point lap seat belts be installed, but only New Jersey makes their use mandatory.
California requires that Type A, Type C and Type D buses have three-point seat belts installed. Texas planned the voluntary adoption of seat belts in new buses by 2010, and the state was going to reimburse school districts for the added cost. Howevery, due to budget cuts, only 36% of that funding was ever allocated.
IMMI is a manufacturer of school bus safety belts, so you need to consider the source, but it offers some startling statistics:
- Every day, there are more than 144 school bus crashes
- Every year, more than 117,000 injuries are reported aboard school buses
NHTSA data suggests that every year, approximately 136 fatalities occur in school transportation related events. Occupants inside the bus only account for eight percent of those fatalities, with the lion’s share of fatalities occurring outside the bus.
That’s down to one fatality per year, on average. But just days into the school year, eight students have already been injured in a single bus crash in Pulaski, Wisconsin, after a car crashed into a bus there yesterday.
Many objections to safety belts on school buses exist:
Compartmentalization keeps kids safe enough, say school bus manufacturers. “Compartmentalization” is industry lingo for the idea that kids will stay in the padded, four-sided box they’re seated in, thanks to the high seat backs in buses today. But that’s only true if the kids are in their seats and facing forward, as you can see in this crash test.
Seat belts are also said to reduce bus capacity, from the maximum of 72. However, IMMI suggests that it can equip buses with seat belts that offer protection for three elementary school kid per seat, or two high school age kids, the same as a standard bus seat with no belts.
Most importantly for some, seat belts are thought to slow down evacuations, but (A) if you need an evacuation, you’ve probably had a significant enough crash that kids would be injured by not wearing seatbelts, and (B) then why do I have to wear one on an aircraft, where a lap belt will most definitely slow down an evacuation, and offer the least possible effective means of protection?
At SchoolBusFleet.com, the issue of whether or not to add seat belts to school buses is even in conflict amongst the groups that represent school bus manufacturers. According to that publication, The National Association for Pupil Transportation (NAPT) and the National School Transportation Association (NSTA) collaborated on a response to recent National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) recommendations.
In their letter, NAPT and NSTA call for “a science-based rather than emotion-driven or ‘directionally correct’ conclusion to the question of whether safety belts would definitively improve school bus passenger crash protection. We cannot in good faith advise our members, or the public, on this issue until the significant and conflicting policy differences between the two federal safety agencies are resolved, hopefully with the added science of dynamic crash testing.”
And it’s true, NHTSA’s position is all over the map. At its website on the issue, assertions swing from school buses being the safest mode of transportation possible for children, to suggesting that lack of seatbelt usage in school buses has a deleterious effect on seat belt usage in later life.
The official position from NHTSA is this:
“There is insufficient reason for a Federal mandate for seat belts on large school buses. “School bus transportation is one of the safest forms of transportation in the United States. We require all new school buses to meet safety requirements over and above those applying to all other passenger vehicles. These include requirements for improved emergency exits, roof structure, seating and fuel systems, and bus body joint integrity. These requirements help ensure that school buses are extremely safe.”
NHTSA feels that the best way to provide crash protection to passengers is through “compartmentalization,” in which “buses provide occupant protection so that children are protected without the need to buckle-up. Occupant crash protection is provided by a protective envelope consisting of strong, closely-spaced seats that have energy-absorbing seat backs.”
Yet, NHTSA seems ready and willing to go to extraordinary lengths to save people from their own demonstrated stupidity of not wearing seat belts in their personal automobiles.
For example, in 2011, NHTSA issued new guidelines for “ejection mitigation” that mandated auto manufacturers to produce more robust side airbags to prevent people from being ejected when not wearing their seat belts.
That new regulation was accompanied by this in the NHTSA press release: “We estimate that this rule will save 373 lives and prevent 476 serious injuries per year. The cost of this final rule is approximately $31 per vehicle.”
IMMI, the producer of seat belts for school buses, suggests that it can equip a school bus with safety belts for ten cents per child. With a maximum capacity of 72 students, the cost for equipping a school bus would be $7.20.
Why would we mandate spending $31 per car saving 476 people from injuries who can’t be bothered to buckle their seat belts, and not spend $7.20 per bus to save 117,000 injuries a year?
Until NHTSA gets its act together,Wesley is going to continue wondering why he has to buckle up in his mom’s car, and not on the bus ride to school.
If you’re interested learning more about every side of this debate, visit:
School Transportation Data: http://www-nrd.nhtsa.dot.gov/Pubs/811396.pdf