Why Don’t School Buses Have Seat Belts?

Driving is risky business. In fact, transport by motor vehicle is responsible for more fatalities annually than any other means of transportation by far. Part of this has to do with the fact that there are so many vehicles on the road, and different types of vehicles respond differently in collisions. In past years, there has been a huge push towards getting people to wear seatbelts. Slogans like “Click it or ticket” and “buckle up, it’s the law” are now cliché, and it’s now rare to see someone driving without a seatbelt. But with all that emphasis on seatbelts, it can be surprising to realize that buses, both motor coach and the ones that carry our children, simply don’t have them. Why not?

Are Buses Safe Without Seatbelts?

It turns out, buses are much safer without seatbelts.  The height and mass of the standard school bus has been a contributing factor in keeping child casualties in bus wrecks to an average 6 per year. Very few other vehicle classes can claim such a record. Still, it’s easy to wonder why they don’t come with seatbelts when there’s so much emphasis on them for general driving.

Belts are a standard fixture on any modern passenger car, and wearing one is considered a crucial part of safe driving habits. But while we rely on our seat belts to keep us in place if a crash should occur, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has conducted studies showing the addition of belts on buses could potentially place more children in danger. How can this be?

Protecting Bus Riders

As we pointed out earlier, buses rely on their considerable size and weight to protect occupants in a crash, but that’s not the only safety feature at work. Bus seats are in fact thickly padded and are placed close together to act as a cushion if the impact of a crash was to jolt a child out of their seat.

This technique is known as compartmentalizing, and bus designers say it works better than seatbelts. The problem with seatbelts is many younger children will refuse them or squirm out of them during the course of a drive.

That isn’t the only reason the NHTSA doesn’t support belts on buses, though. Conducting a risk tradeoff analysis revealed implementing seatbelts would impact the number of children able to fit on the bus, forcing school districts to add more buses, a costly measure. If bus routes were eliminated for cost reasons, kids not riding the bus would have to get to school another way, whether that’s on foot, a bicycle or a private car. The security offered by any of these alternatives can’t match that of the bus sans belts.

Of course, for any sort of transportation, it always helps when drivers and vehicles are in compliance with safety recommendations, even when they’re not mandatory. Commercial buses, for instance, have a choice whether to adhere to the Compliance, Safety, Accountability program recommended by the DOT Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration. Doing so can help save lives.

Paying the Fare

There are still those who hold that until buses include standard seat belts, buses are unsafe. The best counter-argument one could make is that the cost of retrofitting full fleets of yellow buses with seatbelts would be immense. It’s not an expense states want to deal with at the moment.

Even so, when you consider the strong safety record of the school bus and the analysis conducted to expose the risks of such a design change, it’s tough to support a shift to belted buses. The evidence is too strong that staying with the current set of safety features is the best option to continue to provide youngsters with a safe ride to class.

Scott Huntington is a guest NMA blogger who is an automotive writer from central Pennsylvania. Check out his work at Off The Throttle or follow him on Twitter@SMHuntington

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2 Responses to “Why Don’t School Buses Have Seat Belts?”

  1. Neil says:

    To require only new busses to have seat belts would spread the cost over years.

  2. Joe says:

    Still does not address the issue of bus drivers running the students over.