Andy Kim is a former GOVERNING staff writer.
In most of the nation’s school buses, kids ride sans seat belts. Federal regulations passed in 2008 require all buses less than 10,000 pounds to have three-point lap/shoulder belts. But larger school buses -- which are far more common -- aren’t required by federal law to have any type of seat belts. Instead, state and local jurisdictions can decide whether to require the restraints at all.
One of the main reasons belts aren’t required on all school buses is that, statistically speaking, buses are relatively safe. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, an average of six children are killed in school bus crashes as passengers each year -- a figure much smaller than the 42,000 people killed annually in other traffic crashes. “School buses are the safest way for children to get to and from school, period,” says Russ Rader, spokesman for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. “They’re far safer than walking to school, or even riding in Mom or Dad’s car.”
Opponents of school bus seat belt laws say the additional costs of installing safety belts are prohibitive. Equipping school buses with seat belts can cost thousands of dollars per bus. But supporters argue that the expense becomes minuscule when spread over the life span of an average bus.
“If you buy a new, $70,000 school bus, it’s going to last 15 or so years,” says Alan Ross, president of the nonprofit National Coalition for School Bus Safety (NCSBS). “If you crunch the numbers, it comes out to pennies a day throughout the lifetime of that bus.”
Currently six states -- California, Florida, Louisiana, New Jersey, New York and Texas -- have some sort of legislation in place requiring seat belts on school buses. The states’ laws vary in levels of enforcement; some simply require two-point seat belts to be present on school buses, while others require that all passengers use the more secure, three-point belts. With pressure from various grass-roots organizations like the NCSBS, the issue is brought up annually in state legislatures across the country. In 2009, eight states introduced bills that would require seat belts on school buses, but none of them went on to become laws.
Despite the obstacles, certain states are finding other ways to encourage school districts to use seat belt-equipped buses through legislation. Over the summer, Connecticut Gov. M. Jodi Rell signed a bill into law offering towns a 50 percent sales-tax reimbursement on purchases of school buses with three-point seat belts.
Advocates of school bus seat belt laws are gaining steam, and state legislators who support such requirements are persistent in their efforts. “This year already, we’ve gotten legislators from 15 or so states asking for information to help prepare legislation,” says Ross. “We expect at least 20 more states to try to push legislation for seat belt use on school buses.”