On November 28 a National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) rule will go into effect requiring seat belts in large buses. The change will apply to new over-the-road buses only, but officials are optimistic the requirement could substantially improve bus safety by preventing many of the deaths and injuries that arise from bus crashes and minimizing the number of incidents of occupant ejection.
Details of the New Seat Belt Rule
Between the years 2000 and 2009, there were more than 200 fatalities linked to crashes of over-the-road buses, according to the NHTSA's Fatal Analyses Reporting System (FARS). While it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly what role a lack of seat belts played in the fatalities, the administration believes that the new requirement for seat belts in large buses could reduce deaths by up to 44 percent and reduce the number of moderate to severe injuries by up to 45 percent. It’s a fair estimate, given that passenger ejection causes the highest percentage of all passenger fatalities when compared to other bus crash events.
Under the rule, which is an amendment to Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard 208, new over-the-road buses and other types of new buses with a gross vehicle weight rating above 26,000 pounds must be equipped with lap and shoulder belts not just for the driver, but for each passenger. Though the rule itself is recent, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has recommended that charter buses have seat belts for nearly 50 years.
In announcing the amendment, Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administrator Anne S. Ferro touted the stronger seat belt standard as an important improvement.
“Requiring seat belts in new models is another strong step we are taking to reach an even higher level of safety for bus passengers,” Ferro said.
New Rule Too Late for Some Bus Passengers
Bus safety has been under close scrutiny lately after several recent high profile bus accidents, and many people have questioned why there weren’t seat belts in large buses before now.
The fatal Palm Springs tour bus crash left 13 dead and 31 injured in October 2016. The 1996 bus involved in the crash was not equipped with seat belts—a factor that very likely contributed to the number of fatalities and injuries, as officials stated some victims had been thrown through the air upon impact, leaving injuries that were consistent with having hit blunt objects. Officials have said the bus was traveling faster than was safe. All 43 passengers on the bus were either injured or killed in the accident.
On November 15, 2016, after more than a year of investigation, the NTSB finally released its ruling concerning a 2015 duck boat crash in Seattle. A lack of seat belts was once again cited as a factor. In its findings, the NTSB determined that the probable cause of the collision—which killed five and injured 69—was a mechanical failure of the left front axle, which had been improperly manufactured and inadequately maintained. They also found, however, that a contributing cause was the lack of occupant crash protections such as seat belts. Had those protections been in place, as the NTSB has desired for so many years, the consequences of the crash might have been less tragic.
“Contributing to the passenger injuries were the lack of occupant crash protections for the amphibious passenger vehicle and the high impact forces of the crash,” NTSB officials stated. “Occupant protection is an issue area on the NTSB Most Wanted List of safety improvements.”
School Buses Face Scrutiny As Well
The conversation about seat belts on school buses was also reignited recently, when a school bus overturned in Norfolk, Virginia on November 15, 2016. The school bus was carrying 24 students, with nine taken to hospital following the crash. Police charged the bus driver with reckless driving and failure to maintain control of the vehicle, but some parents focused their concerns on the fact that the school bus did not have seat belts. After the crash, the bus came to a rest on its side, with windows shattered and some students falling onto each other. The NHTSA has been in support of seat belts on school buses for at least a year, although that support was a switch from its previous stance that buses without seatbelts were safe.
The November 21, 2016, Chattanooga, Tennessee, school bus crash that killed at least five elementary children and injured 23 others adds to the debate. Officials have not said what led to the bus crash, but the driver was arrested and charged with five counts of vehicular homicide. He may also face charges of reckless endangerment.
Will Seat Belts in Large Buses Go Far Enough?
The new rule on seat belts in large buses is undoubtedly a step in the right direction, but it remains to be seen if it adequately addresses the problem. The requirement will see lap and shoulder restraints in new over-the-road buses—defined by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration as being buses that consist of an elevated passenger deck that sits over a baggage compartment—but it will do nothing to remedy the issue of safety on older buses, which are often used by smaller charter bus operators.
In many bus crash cases, such as the Palm Springs bus crash and the Seattle duck boat crash, the age and maintenance of the vehicles involved is a concern of its own. Due to their age, such vehicles will not be affected by the new seat belt rule, so for their passengers, safety concerns will remain.