Smaller school buses will have to be equipped with three-point, lap-and-shoulder seat belts for the first time, and larger buses will have higher seat backs, under a federal rule announced last week.
The seat belts will only have to be installed in new buses weighing 5 tons or less, and the requirement will not take effect until 2011. These smaller school buses are already required to have lap belts, but not the safer, harness-style belts. There is no seat belt requirement for larger buses.
U.S. Transportation Secretary Mary Peters said she stopped short of requiring seat belts for larger buses because they could limit the number of children who could squeeze into seats, forcing some children to come to school by less safe means. School districts sometimes expect as many as three younger children to share a bus seat, but if there were only two belts installed per seat, fewer children would be able to ride the bus, she said.
“We wanted to make sure that any measures we put forth don’t needlessly limit the capacity of the buses and then force that school or that school district to have more children walking, riding with parents, biking, et cetera,” Ms. Peters said.
Schools purchase about 2,500 of the smaller school buses each year, according to the U.S. Transportation Department. The buses seat about 16 to 20 students, while the larger buses typically carry more than 50 students.
The new rule also includes a performance standard for seat belts on new, larger buses so that schools that want to voluntarily add belts will have guidance on what belts are best, Ms. Peters said.
In addition, the Transportation Department is increasing the required height of seat backs on new buses to 24 inches, up from the current 20 inches. Higher seat backs will help keep taller, heavier children from being thrown over seats in a crash, Ms. Peters said. That rule will be phased in beginning in the fall of 2009 and become fully effective in 2011.
A version of this article appeared in the October 22, 2008 edition of Education Week