Children walking up into a school bus

NHTSA: School Buses Require Seat Belts to Keep Kids Safe

Seat belts save lives. So, why aren’t they already standard equipment on our school buses protecting our children in the event of a bus crash?

The debate over the need for a national standard has raged on for years. Recently, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), the U.S. agency tasked with writing and enforcing laws concerning motor vehicle safety standards, changed its viewpoint on seat belts on school buses.

The agency has adopted a new federal policy position, stating that all students should have access to three-point seat belts, better known as lap-shoulder seat belts, while riding in our nation’s school buses. The NHTSA has yet to announce any rulemaking on seat belts in school buses, citing a need for further research. But the new policy position is a marked departure from the agency’s previous stance and is considered a step in the right direction among bus safety advocates.

Children commuting to and from school on school buses are precious cargo that warrants protection at all costs. While some argue that a school bus is already the safest mode of transportation for students to use on their daily commute, a school bus accident can still be deadly.

The interior design of a school bus mimics an egg carton, where high-back padded seats are intended to keep children from moving out of their seats in the event of a bus accident. However, in the event that a school bus is T-boned or involved in a rollover accident, children can be thrown from side to side, resulting in possible broken bones and spinal injuries.

Seat belts can prevent unnecessary deaths and injuries in a school bus accident. While addressing members of the National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services (NASDPTS) and National Association for Pupil Transportation (NAPT) at a conference on Sunday, NHTSA Administrator Mark Rosekind responded to opposition on the issue by using traffic data as an example.

Rosekind said that failure to use a seat belt contributed to approximately half of the 30,000 deaths caused by traffic accidents on an annual basis. Rosekind also added that 70 percent of teen fatalities in auto accidents stem from victims not wearing their seat belts.

Bus Accident Attorneys: Lack of School Bus Seat Belts Puts Children in Danger

The bus crash attorneys and safety advocates at Baum Hedlund have handled a number of devastating school bus accidents where seat belts could have prevented life-changing injuries and deaths. Baum Hedlund Aristei & Goldman, P.C., represented two students who sustained severe injuries in an April 24, 2014 school bus accident in Anaheim Hills, California.

The driver of the school bus blacked out and lost control of the bus, which veered off the road and crashed into a tree, hanging sideways on a hillside. A eucalyptus tree and a lamppost were the only things keeping the bus from rolling over. One of the students suffered a spinal injury, head trauma, and had to have a toe amputated after the bus accident.

Current U.S. laws only require seat belts on small school buses. However, six states (Texas, California, Florida, Louisiana, New Jersey, and New York) have already equipped all their school buses with seat belts. Unfortunately, in California the law only applies to buses built after July 1, 2005, leaving many children commuting to and from school without the protection of a seat belt.

“We know seat belts save lives,” said a Baum Hedlund attorney. “Each day that goes by without them in every school bus is another day we put children in danger.”

Dispelling the Arguments Against Seat Belts in School Buses

The detractors of federal school bus seat belt legislation say there are several reasons for standing in opposition, including:

  • Cost
  • Effectiveness
  • Evacuation dangers
  • Enforcement

Opponents argue that school buses are already the safest way to get kids to and from school and that paying for seat belts would just be an extra and unnecessary cost. Rosekind responded to this issue at the Sunday conference by saying that there are several ways to find funding. It’s possible that Congress could set aside cash or provisions that could come from grants like Section 402’s Highway Safety Grant. Rosekind believes something like NHTSA’s “Click It or Ticket” program, which came at a cost, could be created as a means to fund seat belts in school buses across the country.

Opponents also claim that seat belts are ineffective in most school bus accidents. Though according to a crash test performed by IMMI, a major provider for seat belts in school buses, not wearing seat belts during a bus crash had extremely detrimental effects on the test dummies used, throwing the unbelted passengers into the seats in front of them.

IMMI researchers then placed the dummies on another bus to demonstrate a rollover bus crash. Two of the belted crash test dummies remained unharmed, while the two unbelted dummies struck hard surfaces and bounced around the interior of the school bus like rubber balls.

Previous IMMI research concluded that three-point seat belts can reduce the possibility of injury and death in a school bus accident by 50 percent. Without a doubt, the research showed that seat belts make school buses safer.

Michael Watkins was 9-years-old when he was in a school bus accident. Watkins’ charter school bus crashed into a bridge in March 2012. The bus had no seat belts installed. Without a seat belt to keep him safely in his seat, Watkins broke his femur in the bus crash. Many other students were injured and two people died in the Indiana bus accident. How much of this pain and suffering could have been prevented if seat belts had simply been installed?

A third argument often heard in the debate on seat belts in school buses concerns evacuation problems. Those safety dissenters believe a seat belt would prevent a student from exiting a school bus accident if there was a fire or if water was involved.

SafeGuard, an affiliate of IMMI lists the many ways this logic is false:

  • A severe bus crash could render unbelted students unconscious, possibly preventing them from evacuating at all.
  • Children learn early-on how to operate a seat belt and if properly trained, can unbuckle themselves in a few seconds.
  • A delayed evacuation in the event of a school bus accident is often caused by not utilizing all the exits in a school bus, not from seat belt use.
  • Safety drills can easily help prepare students for a school bus accident that may involve fire or water.

The benefits of having seat belts in school buses far outweigh any perceived dangers. Safety advocates agree that correctly belted-in students are more likely to remain uninjured and able to escape a catastrophic school bus accident.

The final concern of the school bus seat belt opposition is enforcement. Opponents of the seat belt issue fear students won’t use them even if they’re in the bus. However, seat belts can become a routine part of a child’s school day. With proper education on how and why students must use their seat belts and with support from their parents, school district, administrators, and bus drivers, this training can be what saves the lives of many.

Now is the Time to Get Seat Belts on School Buses Across the Nation

The NHTSA and safety advocates like our bus accident attorneys are not alone in wanting to see improvements in school bus safety. Organizations like the American Medical Association, Physicians for Automotive Safety, American Academy of Pediatrics, and American College of Preventative Medicine all believe seat belts should be placed inside every school bus in the country.

Seat belts have the power to help minimize the devastation and life-altering effects caused by a school bus accident. There is no good reason our children should go one more day without them on their buses, safely riding to and from school.

Contact the NHTSA toll-free today to tell them you want seat belts on every school bus today!

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