Seatbelts Prove Elusive On School Buses Around The Country

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Buses are the primary means with which millions of students get to and from school every day.  And on the whole, the vehicles may in fact be safer on average than cars, trucks, and other automobiles.  But with school either back in session or about to be in many districts around the country, it might be time to ask an important question:  why do so few school buses have seatbelts?

A new report takes a look at the conundrum, which has rose to prominence in the wake of two deadly accidents involving school buses being sideswiped at an intersection.  While many expected the National Transportation Safety Board to issue a ruling about seatbelts or some other type of protection after their investigation into the crashes, the organization instead decided to recommend the adoption of Vehicle to Vehicle communication as a means with which to prevent crashes.

That’s not to say that the NTSB ignored seatbelts entirely; instead, they simply related information that should sound like common sense to most people.  They noted that lap belts can offer greater protection to passengers, while shoulder and lap belts together can protect against flailing-related injuries during a sideswipe-type collision.  The NTSB also noted that the lack of a seatbelt may have contributed to a fatality in one of the bus crashes.  A doctor with the Philadelphia Children’s Hospital explained that students not using seatbelts tended to suffer worse in the crash.

Yet the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has stopped short of mandating the installation of seatbelts in school buses.  Only six states (including California) have rules in place that pertain to seatbelt usage in school buses.  When the NHTSA opted not to move forward with seatbelt mandates twice in the past six years, they pointed to a study from 2002 which concluded that seatbelts don’t offer improved protection during a frontal crash.  Instead, they touted the benefits of a practice called compartmentalization, a design practice which focuses on seat back height and space between seats.

Industry groups will be quick to point to statistics that vouch for the safety of school buses.  Blue Bird claims that buses are 20 times as likely to bring kids to their destination alive than if a parent drove them.  And with .2 fatalities in buses versus 1.44 in cars per 100 million miles traveled, it would seem that buses are indeed safer.

Yet one safety advocate who previously spoke to Congress about the bus safety issue warns that these findings could be misleading.  He points out that buses only run for around half of the year, are out of service during the dangerous months of July and August, and aren’t operated during hazardous early morning hours.  All of this could serve to skew the numbers.