The Reason You Won't Find Seat Belts on a School Bus

by Rebecca Lang August 12, 2016

I was in kindergarten when I rode the school bus for the first time. It was already very crowded when I boarded, and I was proud of myself for asking an older girl if I could squeeze onto the seat next to her. Then, the bus made a turn, I was unprepared, and I tipped into the aisle, catching myself with a hand to the floor. I wasn't hurt at all – just very embarrassed – and I distinctly remember thinking, why don't school buses have seat belts?

It's a good question. All fifty states require us to buckle up in cars, and children must use car seats and booster seats until they have children of their own. (Kidding. It's usually until they're about 4' 9" and 10-12 years old.) Yet, when we wave goodbye to our most precious cargo as they board the school bus, they plop down on tacky brown pleather seats without another thought, and the bus rumbles off.

The American School Bus Council (ASBC) has my favorite answer, explaining that school buses are designed differently than passenger cars. "The children are protected like eggs in an egg carton – compartmentalized, and surrounded with padding and structural integrity to secure the entire container." Large school buses are heavier and distribute the force of impact differently than passenger cars and light trucks do.

This exterior design, coupled with the interior's high-backed bench seats situated closely together, make seat belts unnecessary. However, federal law does require seat belts on the small buses (let's call them the half dozen egg cartons) because their weight and size are more similar to that of a small truck. But, I know – your biggest takeaway from all of this will be to envision a giant egg carton driving your kids to school from now on.

There are more reasons that our little Humpty Dumpties are safe on their school bus without a seat belt. School buses are inspected regularly, and they're taller than most vehicles on the road. This lets the driver see better and raises the passenger section above the typical collision point of a car. Plus, its color and size make it highly visible and recognizable to other drivers, so, save for a few jerks, people know to stop for school buses.

The facts

The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) has done extensive research that supports the ASBC's claims and determined that school buses are seven times safer than passenger cars. While more than 42,000 people are killed in traffic crashes in the U.S. every year, on average, six school-aged children die in school bus accidents as passengers. Of course, that's six fatalities too many. Still, it's undeniable that the safety stats favor the giant egg carton, especially when we consider that about 800 children die each year walking, biking or being driven to school.

Think of it this way: About 450,000 public school buses travel roughly 4.3 billion miles to transport 23.5 million children to and from school, and every single kid will step off of the bus safe and sound nearly every single day. When school buses do crash, the accidents are investigated, and the NHTSA references multiple studies, dating back to the 1980s, which determined seat belts would not have prevented the majority of injuries or fatalities that occurred. While this may not be helpful news to the families who lost children in such a tragic way, it should comfort the rest of us to know that these egg cartons on wheels are very safe, even if they don't have seat belts.

It wouldn't hurt to install them, though, right?

A seat belt may have saved my five-year-old self some embarrassment on the bus, but they still may not be as helpful as we'd hope. Seat belts are only effective when used properly. Otherwise, they can result in serious neck and abdominal injuries. Realistically, it's nearly impossible to get and keep all kids strapped in safely on a school bus, given their squirmy nature and general hatred of being confined. Plus, who's going to do it? The driver's primary attention must be on the road, and aids don't travel on every bus. For the small buses, preventing ejection trumps the risk of injury, and the little egg cartons hold fewer kids, so they're easier to monitor.

There are even more practical matters to consider about installing seat belts. It costs extra money to do it, $8,000 to $12,000 more per bus, which comes out to about $117 million per state to phase in seat belts over ten years. Also, adding seat belts reduces the overall seating capacity of the bus because the belts take up space on the seat. This would require school districts to increase their bus fleet by up to 15% to transport the same number of people.

If towns aren't able to add to their fleet, then more children would have to find alternative ways to get to school, and we already know that walking, biking, and driving in passenger cars is less safe than the bus. In fact, the NHTSA estimates we could see an increase of 10 to 19 fatalities a year if seat belts displaced some kids from their cushy egg carton. Consider also the added burden this could place on families who depend on the bus to get their children to and from school.

So, since the majority of injuries linked to school buses occur around them (think: a passing car hitting a kid getting off the bus), rather than in them, experts advise that money could be better spent on different preventative safety measures, rather than installing seat belts.

Why does it still feel like buses should have seat belts?

The National Safety Council and Ad Council really did an excellent job of drilling it into our heads that seat belts save lives, starting in the 1960s with their Buckle Up for Safety campaign. They did it so well that despite all of the data showing they're not needed for the big egg cartons, the National Conference of State Legislators (NCSL) reports that six states (California, Florida, Louisiana, New Jersey, New York, and Texas) have laws mandating seat belts on school buses. In New York, for example, all school buses manufactured after July 1, 1987 are equipped with seat belts, but individual school districts decide whether children have to wear them, according to Patrick Kinane, the president and co-owner of Golden Sun Bus Services, Inc. in Oswego, New York.

In addition to the six states with laws on the books, the NCSL found that "twelve states have introduced bills that would require school buses to have seat belts installed," though none of those bills have passed, yet. This perception that buses would be safer with seat belts is what Steven Colbert calls "truthiness," i.e. when something is believed to be true, even if it's not. Kinane said he often fields questions about seat belts from parents and sometimes even the kids. Parents are generally in favor of them, particularly for the youngest children.

The desire for seat belts comes from a good place. Everyone wants kids to be safe, and it makes intuitive sense that seat belts would help us achieve that, since they're so effective in passenger cars. The reality, though, is that school buses are already the safest way to transport our kids. So, whether it's due to a lack of research or a decision to ignore facts in favor of truthiness, the push for seat belts on school buses continues.

But, really, this is one debate where we should save our breath. We can wave goodbye to our kids as the school bus rumbles off without wringing our hands in worry. Mr. Kinane reminds us that "bus drivers care about the children they transport as much as they do their own children and often times will refer to them as 'their kids.' The children’s safety is the number one priority when they are transported back and forth to school." When accidents do happen, these giant egg cartons are designed to protect our kids, and they do their job exceptionally well.

Rebecca Lang


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