Ask a Scholar: Seatbelts on School Buses

One of our readers asks:

I’ve long wondered if there were some studies that demonstrated there was no need for seat belts on school buses. Why else would so few buses have them? Unless they’re waiting for a tragedy and then law suits? I guess another factor is actually getting the kids to wear them on the bus. In any case, the issue became acute when my nieces and nephews reached school age school age and my sister is wondering whether to let them ride on buses without belts.

Glenn M. Ricketts, NAS Public Affairs Director and Professor of Political Science at Raritan Valley Community College in Somerville, New Jersey, answers:

This was an intriguing question, and also a difficult one, since none of our members involved in teacher education was familiar with any studies such as the reader requests. While we found no specific studies focused specifically on the utility of seat belts as a safety feature, NAS Communications Director Ashley Thorne did track down several sources which indicated that the question has been around for some time, since the National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration issued stricter requirements for school bus safety features in 1977. These regulations centered on the idea of “compartmentalization,” which made seat belts unnecessary, as explained at NHTSA’s web page in 2006:

Large school buses are heavier and distribute crash forces differently than do passenger cars and light trucks. Because of these differences, the crash forces experienced by occupants of buses are much less than that experienced by occupants of passenger cars, light trucks or vans. NHTSA decided that the best way to provide protection to passengers of large school buses is through a concept called ‘compartmentalization.’ This requires that the interior of large buses provide occupant protection such that children are protected without the need to buckle-up. Through compartmentalization, occupant crash protection is provided by a protective envelope consisting of strong, closely-spaced seats that have energy-absorbing seat backs.

In Pediatrics, official publication of the American Academy of Pediatrics (2006:118), we found a study indicating that the number of injuries sustained in school bus accidents was greater than had previously been believed. Comments from readers, however, included observations from an actual school bus driver, who believed that “compartmentalization” made seat belts unnecessary. “Think of it like an egg” he wrote. “….each egg is in its own compartment.” To the contrary, he speculated that the use of belts “could increase the incidence of serious neck injuries and possibly abdominal injury of young passengers in severe frontal crashes.” He noted further that although 5 states required that school buses be equipped with seat belts, none required student passengers to wear them.

In 2007, NHTSA addressed the question again, concluding that while seat belts might provide some additional safety for school bus riders, “compartmentalization” provided sufficiently adequate safety:

NHTSA has been repeatedly asked to require belts on buses, and has repeatedly concluded that compartmentalization provides a high level of safety protection that obviates the need for a Federal requirement necessitating the installation of seat belts.... 

The agency’s school bus research results indicated that lap/shoulder belts could enhance the safety of large buses, such that a child who has a seat on the school bus and who is belted with a lap/shoulder belt on the bus would have an even lower risk of head and neck injury than on current large buses. Thus, if ample funds were available for pupil transportation, and pupil transportation providers could order and purchase a sufficient number of school buses needed to provide school bus transportation to all children, we would recommend that pupil transportation providers consider installing lap/shoulder belts on large school buses because of the enhancements that lap/shoulder belts could make to school buses. Realistically, however, we recognize that funds provided for pupil transportation are limited, and that the monies spent on lap/shoulder belts on large school buses would usually draw from the monies spent on other crucial aspects of school transportation, such as purchasing new school buses to ensure that as many children as possible are provided school bus transportation, on driver and pupil training on safe transportation practices, and on upkeep and maintenance of school buses and school bus equipment. Bearing these considerations in mind, we recommend that pupil transportation providers consider lap/shoulder belts on large school 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 buses. Reducing bus ridership would likely result in more student fatalities, since walking and private vehicles are less safe than riding a large school bus without belts. [Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, NHTSA, 2007, pp 9 & 20. Reference provided courtesy of Professor Jay K. Lindly, Dept, of Civil Engineering, University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa.]

Finally, we also located a study in progress at the University Transportation Center of Alabama, Tuscaloosa campus, which apparently will examine the seat belt question more closely. The project has just begun this year, and is scheduled to run through March of 2010. According to its abstract the project, titled Pilot Study: School Bus Seat Belts, is proceeding according to these research criteria:

The objective of this project is to conduct a pilot study to assess the impact of installation of lap/shoulder seat belts on a limited number of Alabama school buses. 

The Alabama State Department of Education is purchasing 12 school busses equipped with various types of three-point seat belts. The busses will also be equipped with four ceiling mounted fist eye video cameras to gather data on level of restraint use, effect on student behavior, extra time devoted to buckling up at each stop, and other activities that affect safety, time in transit, and cost effectiveness. This project will be conducted through four parallel initiatives. They should jointly provide the maximum amount of information on the topic of possible adoption of school bus seat belts in Alabama. The four parts of the research will be: (I) analysis of national practice – what other organizations and states have found, including a meta analysis of prior safety studies, (II) alterations needed in the Alabama bus fleet, (III) analysis of Alabama school bus crash data, and (IV) a cost-benefit analysis.

At present, then, there seems to be a regulatory consensus – notwithstanding widespread advocacy - that seat belts need not be mandatory, although there use might provide additional safety for school bus passengers. Perhaps when the University of Alabama project is completed in 2010, the results will infuse new information into an ongoing public controversy.

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