By Chairman Christopher A. Hart
Over the next few weeks, nearly 50 million children will head back to school; more than 20 million of those students, including my daughter, will ride on a school bus.
When I talk about how to safely transport children to and from school, and more specifically about school bus safety, one of the first questions I am asked is “Why aren’t school buses required to have seat belts?” The answer isn’t simple, but I’ll explore it below.
First, let me convey something that is simple: school buses, with or without seat belts, are the safest way to go to and from school! Your child is safer riding in a school bus, even without seat belts, than any other way to get to school, including your own car.
Every year, more than 30,000 people are killed on the nation’s roadways. In fact, motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death for school-age children. Each year approximately 800 school-age children are killed in motor vehicle crashes during normal school travel hours (September 1 through June 15, Monday through Friday, 6:00 a.m. to 8:59 a.m. and 2:00 p.m. to 4:59 p.m.) The numbers are worst for teenagers driving themselves to and from school, who are at the highest risk of injury or fatality. The risk for teen drivers is about eight times higher than the risk for teens driven by adults.
Which children are safest? The ones on the school buses. Of those 800 school-age children killed in motor vehicle crashes per year, only 20 – or 2 percent – were school-bus related. Five were passengers on a school bus, and 15 were pedestrians approaching or leaving the bus. The other 98 percent were children riding bicycles or motorcycles, or riding in or struck by passenger vehicles. School buses have the lowest injury and fatality rates of all motor vehicles.
I understand why I am so often asked the question about school buses and seat belts. It’s natural for us, as parents, to question what appears to be a glaring safety gap. We are taught from the moment we bring our children home from the hospital that we need to have them properly restrained in a child safety seat, and a booster seat as they grow older, and we constantly hear the message that all of us need to be buckled up on every trip.
The answer regarding school buses is that the regulators and manufacturers have pursued a holistic total protection approach, rather than just focusing on seat belts. To understand how this came to be, some history about school bus safety might be helpful.
Back in 1977, school buses were redesigned because they weren’t protecting students as well as they should. As for the protection that we normally associate with seat belts, regulations called for a design that was known as “compartmentalization” because seat belts were not widely worn in 1977. Compartmentalization requires closely spaced, energy-absorbing, high-backed, padded seats which absorb crash forces and provide the protection needed during a front or rear-impact crash. And, as the statistics show, compartmentalization works in those types of crashes. Experience has shown that seat belts are an important complement to compartmentalization in side impact and rollover crashes, but experience has also shown that side impact and rollover crashes are very rare.
Other new rules were passed as well. Some of these rules required a stronger roof to protect students in a rollover and a stronger structure to ensure safety during the most severe crashes. Others focused on the stop-arms, the bright (yellow) color, the exterior lights, and the rules for other motorists driving near the bus. The fact that students sit high above the ground in a school bus is also an added safety benefit.
Given the success of this holistic approach in school buses, we have not recommended seat belts, but we have pushed for continuing to explore more holistic remedies to protect the students. Taken together, school buses are now required to meet more federal regulations than any other vehicle on the road.
Remember, with or without seat belts, children and teenagers are safest riding to and from school in the school bus.
Have your child ride the school bus and know that they are going to and from school in the safest way possible.