States Seek More Secure Seat Belt Laws for School Buses

Only one state follows the new federal recommendations for seat belts in school buses. That could change soon, but money remains an issue.
by | February 23, 2016
Bob Riley, the former governor of Alabama, which conducted a study that concluded it would be better to improve the safety of boarding or exiting buses than to require seat belts. (AP/Jamie Martin)

When Los Angeles Unified School District students take their seats on school buses each morning, they buckle up, just as they would in cars. The district is one of the select few throughout the country with seat belts in its school buses, but more may soon follow suit.

Last year, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) reversed its longstanding policy, now recommending that students wear lap and shoulder belts on all school buses. Although NHTSA stopped short of proposing a mandate, several state legislatures are currently weighing bills on the issue.

Currently, California is the only state with a law, implemented in 2004 and 2005, that requires lap and shoulder belts on all newly-manufactured buses. Florida, New Jersey and New York call for less stringent lap belts. Louisiana and Texas also passed laws requiring safety restraints, but neither legislature is allocating funding.

“There’s not going to be a magic new source of funding,” said Charlie Hood, the executive director of the National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services. “But we think we’re going to see a lot more conversation and movement in this direction.”

Most proposed state laws require seat belts in all newly-purchased school buses, phasing them into districts’ fleets over time. Retrofitting existing buses with seat belts is more costly because the seat frames typically have to be replaced, said Hood.

Legislation to establish new seat belt requirements or strengthen existing laws has been introduced in at least eight states. Proposals in Arizona, Hawaii, Maryland, Rhode Island, South Carolina and West Virginia set varying targets to equip new or existing buses with safety restraints. Legislators in New Jersey and New York, meanwhile, want to bolster state law to mandate lap and shoulder seat belts.

The Los Angeles Unified School District was one of the country’s earliest adopters. It first purchased buses with seat belts in the 1980s and 90s, and more than 80 percent of the district’s fleet is now equipped with them.

“There’s an acceptance of the reality that seat belts are here, and it’s becoming more of a normal thing on school buses,” said Donald Wilkes, the district’s transportation director.

The district encourages drivers to regularly check belts to ensure they’re working property. Students undergo annual training on how to ride safely, and stickers on buses remind them to buckle up.

Still, Wilkes conceded that a small segment of students -- mostly those in middle school -- don’t always buckle up. State law doesn’t require students to use seat belts.

For now, any federal mandate appears unlikely. One industry group, the National Association for Pupil Transportation, said that the decision should be left to states and local districts because they’re in the best position to make determinations, given budget constraints.

A major barrier to seat belts in school buses, after all, is funding. On average, NHTSA estimates the incremental cost of eqipping a large bus with lap and shoulder belts ranges from $7,300 to $10,300. Many cash-strapped school districts aren’t in a position to upgrade their buses.

In Texas, a 2009 law authorized state funding, but the grants only covered the additional cost of seat belts in new buses. Just four districts ended up receiving $417,000 of the $10 million in available funding. At the time, districts had incurred steep reductions in state funding, so few were in the market to purchase new buses, said Debbie Ratcliffe, a Texas Education Agency spokeswoman. More recently, the Houston Independent School District announced all its new buses will be equipped with lap and shoulder belts after a crash last fall claimed the lives of two high school students.

Across the country, most buses transporting students to and from school rely on a safety concept known as compartmentalization. Absent any seat belts, tall, closely-spaced padded seats form protective barriers around passengers. But compartmentalization does leave children vulnerable in the event of a side-impact collision or rollover.

Still, an extremely low number of students die in school bus accidents. A review of the most recent federal data indicates that an average of just five school-age passengers are killed each year. Injuries are harder to peg, but one 2006 study estimated 17,000 school bus-related injuries occur annually, when pedestrians and all other types of accidents are considered.

NHTSA estimates that lap and shoulder belts in all school buses could save two lives annually. Additionally, said Hood, districts with seat belts in school buses are reporting improvements in student behavior as they’re less likely to hurt others or distract drivers when buckled up.

Opponents argue that seat belts may hinder an evacuation of a school bus, and students may use belt buckles as weapons. And seat belts will fail to prevent a limited number of fatalities. A 14-year-old girl died after jumping out of the emergency exit of a moving New Jersey school bus in 2013, for instance. In one of the deadliest accidents to occur in recent years, a bus collided with two dump trucks on an Indiana highway. Four special needs students, who were wearing safety restraints, all died in that 2008 wreck.

NHTSA, in a presentation last summer, pointed out that any loss in school bus capacity resulting from safety belts could lead students to use alternative, less safe means of transportation. A pilot project conducted in Alabama also concluded the state would be better off investing in measures that would improve safety of students as they’re boarding or exiting buses, which is when many fatalities occur. “Costs far exceed benefits, and school bus seat belts appear to be less cost-effective than other types of safety treatments,” the study concluded.

Despite the drawbacks, NHTSA’s seat belt recommendation represents a possible turning point that’s likely to lead more state legislatures to take up the issue. Given the costs involved and needs in other areas, though, any widespread shift in policy will take time.

School Bus Fatalities Data

View national trends and statistics on school bus accidents

Governing compiled data from NHTSA’s Fatality Analysis Reporting System on all accidents occurring between 2005 and 2014 considered to be “school transportation-related” where at least one school bus passenger or driver was killed. This map shows the 83 fatal crashes that occurred over the 10-year period (click to open interactive map in new window):