Safe on the School Bus?

Lisa Schulman
December 14, 2001

The closet is bulging with bicycle helmets, knee pads, wrist guards, and shin guards. You just spent $70 on a booster seat for your 7-year-old. But every weekday morning, your kids hop on the school bus for a 20- or 30-minute ride -- with no seatbelt in sight.

Many parents wonder why that is. One key reason: school buses have an excellent safety record. In the decade from 1987 to 1996, there was an annual average of 10 fatalities among children riding in school buses, while another 25 children died each year in accidents that occurred while they were crossing streets to get on or off a school bus. That's out of an estimated 23.5 million students transported in school buses daily. In fact, according to the Fatality Analysis Reporting System at the U.S. Department of Transportation, school buses are 60 times safer than cars, trucks or vans.

Still, given the emergence of mandatory seat belt laws for automobiles and ever-more effective infant and child seats and restraints, it seems strange that federal safety standards for school buses have not had a comprehensive updating in nearly 25 years.

Compartmentalization: The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration View
Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (FMVSS 222), "School Bus Passenger Seating and Crash Protection," went into effect on April 1, 1977. The federal mandate requires all newly manufactured buses with a vehicle weight over 10,000 pounds to protect riders through "compartmentalization." This refers to the addition of high padded seat backs and narrow seat spacing designed to keep children in a confined area during a crash. Small school buses, which have a similar fatality rate to cars because of their weight and design, are required to have lap belts.

Because school buses are so heavy, occupants are subjected to a much smaller crash force than they would be if riding in a passenger car, light truck or van, says the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). Over the past 25 years, the safety of compartmentalization has been confirmed through independent studies performed by agencies such as the National Transportation Safety Board and the National Academy of Sciences. Because compartmentalization is deemed "safe," the NHTSA has been reluctant to mandate national seat belt laws for large school buses. Instead, individual states determine their own seat belt laws.

The Battle of the Belts
Those embroiled in the seat belt debate fall into two strongly opposed camps. On one side are such organizations as the NHTSA, the non-profit National Safety Council and the school bus contractors' trade organization, the National School Transportation Association. These groups believe that the current design of buses is safe.

On the other side are organizations that want all buses to be equipped with seat belts, such as the American Medical Association, American Academy of Pediatrics and the National Parent Teacher Association.

"It is important, as our children travel to and from school, that they are safe," said National PTA President Shirley Igo. "School bus safety includes the use of seat belts? The fact is that seat belt use in buses saves serious injuries and lives." Igo said National PTA supports regulation requiring any new bus purchased for the purpose of transporting school children to be equipped with seat belts.

Gary Murphy is the CEO of Busbelts, a company that designs lap/shoulder belt systems for buses that the NHTSA purchased and subsequently tested. He argues that the lack of belts in buses has an impact on children's behavior in the family car. "The Department of Transportation's own study (HS 806-965) demonstrated that kids who have seat belts on their school bus reported that they were more likely to wear them in their own cars, where non-buckling is the number one killer of children," says Murphy.

Seat belt use can also prevent children from distracting bus drivers, proponents argue. The NHTSA concedes that seat belt use can stop children from sticking their arms and heads out of a window, getting out of their seats while the bus is moving, and otherwise acting up.

Design Wars
Do lap belts improve or reduce bus safety? The answer, it seems, depends upon whom you ask.

Charles Hott, safety engineer at the NHTSA, notes that, "the risk of being ejected from a large school bus is very low." Hott suggests that children who are strapped in with lap belts may risk head injuries when the crash force whips their upper body into the seat back in front.

On the other hand, during hearings before the Connecticut state legislature in 2000, Dr. Alan Ross of the National Coalition for School Bus Safety pointed out that New York, which has a decade of experience with seat belt use in school buses, has not had a single accident injury related to the use of the lap belt itself.

Any risks associated with lap belts may not apply to the use of a combination lap/shoulder belt, like those found in cars. However, designing such a system for school buses is difficult, requiring an entirely redesigned, more rigid seat back. Hott theorizes such a system could result in more injuries and fatalities if there are unrestrained occupants riding the bus. "As you well know, not all people wear their seat belts in passenger cars," he explains. "It is important to remember that the goal of NHTSA is to reduce deaths and injuries associated with motor vehicle crashes, not increase them."

Gary Murphy of Busbelts disagrees. He refers to a March 2000 NHTSA study analyzing the safety of compartmentalization, lap belts, and lap/shoulder belts. The highest incidents of head injuries occurred with test dummies that were in compartmentalized seats without belts. Those restrained with lap belts had a significantly lower risk, although some kinds of bus accidents resulted in fatal head injuries. With lap/shoulder belts, however, tests revealed that the risk of head injuries drops even further.

Charles Hott cautions that the study is only a preliminary one. "Making premature conclusions on partial data can lead to outcomes that may not be beneficial to safety."

State by State Decision-making
Five states currently have laws in place that are based upon the 1977 Federal Motor Vehicle Standards.

According to the monthly magazine, "School Transportation News," only New York and New Jersey currently require lap belts for large school buses. In New Jersey, the law requires all students to use provided belts, while in New York, required use is a district-by-district decision.

Three other states—California, Florida and Louisiana—passed legislation requiring that all school buses manufactured after varying dates in the immediate future have lap/shoulder belts. While Louisiana and Florida have already begun preparations, California has recently delayed manufacturing changes to the year 2003.

California, meanwhile, wrestles with safety issues surrounding more than 1,000 school buses in the state that were manufactured before 1977, yet remain in service. That's more than any other state. Bob Austin, instructor for the California Department of Education Office of School Transportation, says retrofitting these old buses with seat belts may make them less safe for children. Seats on these buses may not be firmly anchored to the floor or may have inadequate padding surrounding the seat frame.

According to Austin, "Pre-1977 buses are safe, just less safe than post-1977 buses." Nonetheless, he says that the California Department of Education Office of School Transportation would like to see them off the road completely. "It's a matter of money here," he admits.

What Parents Can Do
As legislators and transportation boards work towards making decisions that affect our children's safety, there are some things that parents can do to help keep their children safe.

For one thing, parents can ask schools and districts to retire older model buses that do not meet the standards set in 1977.

In addition, parents can make sure their children know that they need to be especially careful when crossing the street to get on or off a bus. That's the most dangerous part of riding a school bus: 78 percent of all school bus-related fatalities occur during the loading and unloading of passengers, according to the NHTSA. And 53 percent of school bus-related fatalities are the result of a secondary vehicle striking a child (Traffic Safety Facts, 1999, U.S. Department of Transportation).

More than half of school bus deaths occur in children between the ages of 5 and 7, in part because they are harder to see in front of or behind vehicles.

Parents can also encourage schools to include such events as School Bus Safety Week, which falls from October 21 to 27th, 2001. Parents who wish to learn more about this program can visit the National School Bus Safety Week site.

Lisa Schulman is a freelance writer. Her articles have appeared in numerous online publications, including and <ahref="http: />





My name is Blake Barnhoorn and I am eleven years old and am a boyscout in Aliso Viejo. I am working on my Citizenship in the Nation merit badge and have been asked to write to someone in the government about something that I feel strongly about. Well I picked having seatbelts on school buses. I want to know what is being done about making it safe for kids to ride on school buses without seatbelts. I just don&;t understand how the police can make it required for us to wear seatbelts in a car but when a bus load of kids get on a bus to go to school or on a field trip we can just sit there not safe at all. Doesn&;t anyone think that the safety of 40 or more kids on a bus is worth anything? I understand that it cost a lot of money to put seat belts on all the school buses but aren&;t the kids worth it. Well thats about all I have to say. I hope someone reads this and responds to my e-mail.

Thank You,
Blake Barnhoorn

Blake I think you are a very bright young man and I agree with you. I am a parent of three school aged kids and i think there should be a law requiring seat belts on school busses.