The current school bus safety standards for children were put into effect by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) in 1977 – more than 30 years ago – and are based on a concept called compartmentalization. Compartmentalization requires closely spaced, energy absorbing, high-back padded seats. Children impact the seat in front of them, and that seat absorbs their energy.
Testing shows that compartmentalization offers protection in frontal and rear crashes, if children are properly seated, but offers virtually no protection in rollovers or side impacts. The 1999 National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) Special Investigation Report1 concludes: “Current compartmentalization is incomplete in that it does not protect school bus passengers during lateral impacts with vehicles of large mass and in rollovers, because in such accidents, passengers do not always remain completely within the seating compartment.”
NHTSA research2 indicates that lap-shoulder belts, in every vehicle in which they have ever been introduced, reduce injuries and fatalities by 45 percent.
What Do Parents Say?
According to a poll of parents commissioned by the American School Bus Council in December 2006, parents overwhelmingly favor a national standard for lap-shoulder belts in large school buses. More than half have concerns about school bus safety, with a lack of seat belts as the single biggest concern.
Each year, state legislators across the country introduce new lap and shoulder belt legislation, typically in response to passionate pleas from parents and child safety advocates. The most vocal proponents are often the parents of children who have been involved in school bus accidents. Few bills pass through the fiscal review process when issues of fleet capacity are considered.
Here’s what parents said in the ASBC parent poll:
More than 50 percent of parents polled (and over 70 percent of parents with kids who do not ride the bus) have concerns about school bus safety.
60 percent of all parents (and 75 percent of parents of non-bus riders) do not believe that riding on a school bus is as safe as riding in their own personal car.
The single biggest concern of parents is the lack of seat belts, with 80 percent of parents saying all school buses should be equipped with lap-shoulder belts.
Second in the minds of parents is a concern about discipline problems, an issue that is proven to be strongly impacted by the addition of seat belts to the bus.
Progress in the U.S.
Some of the most progressive school districts in the U.S. have moved forward with lap-shoulder belts on newly purchased school buses, due to concerns about student safety.
In 2002, a school bus equipped with SafeGuard seats became the first bus in the U.S. to transport students secured with lap-shoulder belts.
Starting in 2005, California required lap-shoulder belts on all new school buses.
Texas will require lap-shoulder belt equipped seats on all new buses starting in 2010.
Several states are considering legislation now to require lap-shoulder belts on new buses.
Progressive school districts in 40 U.S. states have moved forward with lap-shoulder belts on newly purchased school buses, without state mandates.
Momentum is building, and it’s time to take action.
1 Bus Crashworthiness Issues; NTSB/SIR-99/04, Conclusions, p. 68-69
2 The Facts to Buckle Up America – Safety Belts and Teens 2003 Report, DOT HS 809 578