School buses are one of the safest forms of transportation in the United States. School buses are approximately seven times safer than passenger cars or light trucks. The school bus occupant fatality rate of .2 fatalities per 100 million vehicle miles traveled is considerably lower than the fatality rates for passenger cars or light trucks (1.44 per 100 million VMT). The NSA found that there are about 815 fatalities related to school transportation per year. Only 2 percent are associated with official school transportation, compared to 22 percent dues to walking /bicycling to or from school, and 75 percent from passenger car transportation to or from school.
Pedestrian fatalities account for the highest number of school bus related fatalities. There are about 17 such fatalities per year, two – thirds of which involve the school bus itself and the rest involving motorists illegally passing the stopped school bus. In its 1989 report, the NAS stated that since children are at greater risk of being killed in school bus loading zones (boarding and leaving the bus) than in the bus, a larger share of the school bus safety effort should be directed to improving the safety of the school bus loading zones. NHTSA agrees with the NAS that States and localities should focus their efforts toward improving schools bus loading zones.
There is no question that seat belts play an important role in keeping people safe in vehicles; however school buses are different by design and use a different kind of safety restraint system that works extremely well. The NHTSA requires that the interior of large buses provide occupant protection such that children are protected without the need to buckle – up. NHTSA’s 2002 Report to Congress found that the addition of lap belts did not improve occupant protection for the severe frontal impacts. Putting in seat belts require raising the seat height from 24 to 28 inches, making it more difficult for drivers to keep an eye on students. Then there’s the problem of making students, particularly teenagers, wear lap/seat belts if they are, in fact mandated.
The NTSB conducted in a 1987 study of school bus crashes found that most fatalities and injuries occurred because the occupant seating positions were in direct line with the crash forces. NTSB stated that seat belts would not have prevented most of the serious injuries and fatalities from occurring in school bus crashes. In 1989, the NAS completed a study of ways to improve school bus safety and concluded that the overall potential benefits of requiring seat belts on large school buses were insufficient to justify a Federal mandate for installation. NAS also stated that the funds used to purchase and maintain seat belts might be better spent on other school bus safety programs and devices that could save more lives and reduce more injuries.
States or school districts are not prohibited by the federal government from purchasing seat belts at any passenger seating position in large public school buses. Over the past 30 years, some States have required new large school buses to come equipped with seat belts. There have been no documented injuries or fatalities resulting from seat belts on school buses. However, States should take into consideration the increased capital costs, reduced seating capacities, and other unintended consequences associated with seat belts that could result in more children seeking alternative means of traveling to and from school or school – related events. These alternative modes of travel could put children at greater risk because they are not nearly as safe as school buses. If seat belts to be beneficial, States that require them on school buses should ensure that the belts are worn properly by all school bus passengers.
The estimated cost of adding lap/shoulder seat belts on school buses is an additional $10,000 over the $75,000 – $100,000 costs of a new bus. One hundred belt – equipped buses would cost an extra 1 million. Plus, safety belts use up space, and that translates to fewer seats on new buses; estimates vary from 6 percent to 25 percent fewer. That could mean even more money would be necessary to pay for extra buses, often paid by higher property taxes on retirees in rural and suburban areas, where buses are most needed. Or it could mean fewer buses, which would force children to travel in other, less safe ways.