Should our school buses have seat belts?

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), students are safe enough on large school buses (over 10,000 pounds) even when seat belts aren’t required, as is the case in Tennessee.

According to the agency, a child is around 70 times more likely to get to school without a crash when riding a large school bus than when riding in a car. NHTSA calls school buses “the most regulated vehicles on the road” and points to their many safety features like flashing lights, the highly visible color of the bus and the cross-arm.

In addition, NHTSA has argued that large school buses are inherently safer than cars because of “compartmentalization.” In other words, passengers are seated between durable, closely-spaced seats that absorb the energy of a crash. Heavy school buses distribute the forces of a crash differently than smaller vehicles, which means that large-bus passengers experience less force during a crash.

Smaller school buses – those with a gross vehicle weight rating of 10,000 pounds or less – do need seat belts. These vehicles are more similar to cars and trucks, and seat belts are needed to keep the passengers safe.

The National Transportation Safety Board urges lawmakers to require seat belts on all buses

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), an agency separate from NHTSA, recently completed an investigation into an October 2020 school bus crash in Tennessee. That crash occurred on state highway 58 in Meigs County.

According to reports, the driver of a utility truck allegedly became distracted by a sheriff’s deputy vehicle in his rearview mirror. In his distraction, he apparently allowed the right wheel of his truck to slip off the pavement. He pulled left and the truck spun out on the roadway, nearly perpendicular to traffic. A nearby school bus driver braked but had no chance to avoid a collision.

The school bus driver and a 7-year-old passenger from right behind her were killed in the collision. Four other children were injured seriously, and all had been sitting in the first three rows of the bus. The bus did not have seat belts for the passengers.

The NTSB has long advocated for seat belts to be required on all school buses. Although it investigates crashes and makes recommendations, however, it has no authority to regulate. Therefore, lawmakers have perhaps looked to NHTSA to make the final call.

Tennessee may reconsider its current position of not requiring seat belts on large school buses. The argument against this seems to be that the current system works well enough. But the question to task is how many children have been lost who might have been saved by a seat belt?

The issue isn’t necessarily money. According to the NTSB, the Tennessee Legislature has already made $3 million available to school districts who want to add seat belts to their buses. Nearly $827,000 had been paid out as of the publication of the NTSB report.

If there is evidence that adding lap and shoulder belts to our buses would do nothing to enhance safety for our children, we haven’t seen it.

School bus accidents are relatively rare, but they do happen. We owe it to our kids to go beyond the minimum standards for safety.

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