School Climate & Safety

Mixed Reactions to Bus Safety Regulations

By Katie Ash — November 29, 2007 6 min read

The school transportation industry and safety advocates are voicing different reactions to proposed federal rules that stop short of requiring the installation of safety belts in large school buses.

The proposal by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration would require small school buses—those that weigh 10,000 pounds or less—to be equipped with lap-and-shoulder belts instead of just lap belts, as current rules require. Also, seat backs on all school buses would have to be raised to 24 inches, from 20 inches.

NHTSA’s proposed rules, which would apply only to newly manufactured school buses, do not call for seat belts of any kind on buses over 10,000 pounds, but they do propose standards for when the safety devices are installed on large buses voluntarily.

Seat belts “do provide a modest safety benefit, but not enough to justify requiring them” on larger school buses, said Rae Tyson, a spokesman for NHTSA, which is part of the U.S. Department of Transportation.

Weighing Trade-offs

The proposal was announced Nov. 19 by U.S. Secretary of Transportation Mary E. Peters in Raleigh, N.C., where she rode a school bus to an elementary school and spoke about the importance of outlining clear safety regulations for such buses.

“Our proposed rule would make children safer, put parents at ease, and give communities a clearer picture of how to protect students,” Secretary Peters said at the event.

Installing lap-and-shoulder belts in large buses could potentially diminish their seating capacity, Mr. Tyson said. By limiting the number of students in each seat, some students could be forced to use less safe methods of getting to school—such as by car or walking.

Instead of through a mandate for seat belts, students’ safety on large buses is enhanced by the long-used “compartmentalization” approach, according to the agency. Under that method, students are kept safe by sitting in a “compact, protected area” that is “cushioned and contained by the seats,” the agency says in the proposed rules, which appeared in the Federal Register on Nov. 21. The rules are open for a comment period that ends Jan. 22.

Research by NHTSA indicates that raising seat backs to 24 inches, from 20 inches, would likely “reduce the potential for passenger override in a crash,” says the document, referring to the possibility of students’ being thrown into neighboring seats. Four states—Illinois, New Jersey, New York, and Ohio—and many school districts already require school bus seat backs to be at least 2 feet high.

The agency acknowledges that lap-and-shoulder belts could enhance the safety of large school buses, but says that “realistically, … we recognize that funds provided for pupil transportation are limited, and that the monies spent on lap-and-shoulder belts on large school buses” would come from the monies spent on other transportation expenses, such as buying new school buses or safety training.

The agency also proposes standards for voluntarily installed seat belts on large school buses, but it urges officials to consider lap-and-shoulder belts on such buses “only if there would be no reduction in the number of children that are transported to or from school or related events on large school buses.”

Some Disappointed

Though the proposed rules would apply only to newly manufactured school buses, no target effective date has been set. NHTSA hopes to be able to provide grant money to help retrofit existing fleets to meet the new rules. The total projected cost for requiring higher seat backs on all new school buses and lap-and-shoulder belts on new small buses would be $6.6 million to $9.9 million annually, the agency said.

About 2,500 new small school buses and 37,500 new large buses are purchased each year, according to the School Bus Fleet 2007 Fact Book, which analyzed industry data from 2001-2005.

Proposed Rules on School Bus Safety

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has proposed new rules for school bus seating and crash protection:

LARGE BUSES: School buses weighing more than 10,000 pounds would not be required to have seat belts, but state officials could apply to use federal funds to install them voluntarily. The proposed rules provide detailed standards for seat belts that are installed voluntarily on large buses.

SMALL BUSES: Buses that are 10,000 pounds or less would be required to install retractable lap-and-shoulder belts for each seating position. Currently, such buses are only required to have lap belts.

SEAT BACKS: The minimum height requirement for seat backs on all buses would be raised from 20 inches to at least 24 inches.

SOURCE: U.S. Department of Transportation

The proposal came as little surprise to school transportation officials, in part because federal officials had signaled their intentions at a July meeting in Washington on school bus safety.

Not everyone was pleased with the proposed regulations.

“We were very disappointed,” said Alan Ross, the president of the National Coalition for School Bus Safety, a group made up of school bus safety advocates that organizes efforts to improve safety on school buses. Citing the use of safety belts in passenger cars since the 1960s, he said that “we feel that these improvements were well overdue.”

The Torrington, Conn.-based group was disappointed that the rules would not require seat belts in all buses. Mr. Ross said that by outlining regulations for schools to equip large buses with any form of safety belts voluntarily, however, NHTSA is conceding that seat belts on school buses are beneficial.

“The [school bus] industry has been saying that [seat belts] are unnecessary, and by this announcement, [NHTSA] implies that those arguments are out the window,” he said. “It’s sort of an implied consent that these are OK appliances.”

Even without seat belts, school buses are one of the safest forms of transportation available, said NHTSA. A 2002 study by the National Academy of Sciences found that of the 815 school transportation fatalities that occurred that year, only 2 percent were related to school buses. Seventy-five percent of the fatalities were from passenger-car crashes, while 22 percent involved students who were walking or bicycling to school.

Overall, the fatality rate for school bus occupants is one-sixth the overall rate for motor vehicles, according to a 2005 study by the Transportation Department that reviewed crash information from 1994 to 2005.

Other Safety Priorities

To use federal transportation-safety money to install seat belts on large buses, grant requests would have to be submitted to NHTSA by a state. If a school district wanted to use local or state funding to put seat belts on its large buses, it would have to comply with the proposed regulations.

Christopher J. Murphy, the chairman of the Governors Highway Safety Association, which represents the states’ highway-safety offices, issued a statement asking state officials to “[spend] highway-safety money on the areas that will have the greatest impact on saving lives”—such as combating drunk driving, deterring speeding, and increasing occupant protection for the general population.

“The additional focus on the [seat belt] issue may cause states to be pressured to spend federal highway-safety money for this purpose to the detriment of many competing highway safety needs,” said Mr. Murphy, who is the director of California’s state office of traffic safety.

The National School Transportation Association agreed with NHTSA’s decision not to require seat belts in large buses, but was unhappy with the proposed standards for voluntary seat belts.

“We were somewhat disappointed that the NHTSA did not prohibit the use of lap-belt-only systems,” said Robin Leeds, the industry specialist for the Alexandria, Va.-based group, which represents school bus manufacturers, suppliers, and private contractors. “We would have preferred them to say that if you’re going to voluntarily install seat belts, they have to be lap/shoulder belts.”

Lap belts have performed poorly in crash tests and are largely ineffective, Ms. Leeds said.

Steve Wallen, the director of operations for Indiana Mills Manufacturing Inc., a Westfield, Ind., maker of bus seats and passenger-restraint devices, was not as quick to criticize lap belts.

“Some research suggests that lap belts are ineffective in a frontal crash,” said Mr. Wallen, “but in side-impact and rollover accidents, they hold you better.”

Safeguard, the company’s child-passenger-protection division, has developed a school bus seat that can provide seat belts for either three elementary school pupils or two high school students, solving the student-capacity problem, according to Mr. Wallen.

“What we’ve seen over the last five or six years is that the arguments [against seat belts] start to dry up,” he said. “Now it comes down to kids versus dollars, and that’s a decision we as parents and we as taxpayers have to make.”

A version of this article appeared in the December 05, 2007 edition of Education Week

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