Strapping in students on buses gains some speed with schools

By: | December 22, 2016

More districts are adding seat belts to their bus fleets, following the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration’s 2015 recommendation that “every child on every school bus” needs a seat belt.

Some districts are piloting seat belts on a handful of buses, while others are taking steps to outfit their entire fleet.

But there’s no federal mandate. Six states require seat belts on school buses, but only California meets the NHTSA recommendation. The agency has been weighing whether to mandate belts on buses for four decades. Industry experts say that’s because school buses are already one of the safest forms of transportation, thanks to cushioned seats that protect students in a crash.

In New Hanover County Schools in North Carolina, administrators in 2016 added seat belts to five of their 163 buses as part of a state study.

Buses, which transport 23.5 million children to school and activities each year across the nation, travel more than 4.3 billion miles per year. While it’s the safest mode of transportation for school children, about six people are killed each year while riding a school bus, according to national NHTSA data.

“You still know that if you’re in the seat belt, it increases the safety percentage just a little bit more” says Ken Nance, director of transportation in New Hanover County.

Better-behaved students

When students board buses in New Hanover County, bus drivers will walk through the aisle to check belts before pulling away from the school. And drivers can check their rearview mirror to ensure students haven’t removed lap and shoulder belts.

Bus drivers have noticed that seat belts have seemingly improved student behavior—they’re not jumping between seats, standing up or leaning into the aisle, which could cause more serious injuries in a crash. Plus, drivers can better focus on the road. However, despite those benefits, middle and high school students tend to resist using seat belts, Nance says.

Better technology has made the belts lighter. The buckles are close to the seat’s crease instead of at the end of the belt, decreasing the likelihood of students swinging and hitting other kids with them. The belts, which automatically retract, also extend to accommodate different size children, so either two larger students or three smaller ones can fit per seat.

Allocating funding

The cost of installing seat belts is a major concern for districts. “They would prefer to have seat belts on buses, but there are very few who can actually fund them” says Todd Steele, vice president of business development and growth at First Student, the largest school transportation company in North America.

In some cases, state lawmakers have mandated belts, but districts haven’t added them because funding hasn’t been allocated. Older buses weren’t designed for seat belts, Steele says. It can cost up to $30,000 to outfit an old, traditional, long yellow bus with belts.

Estimates for adding seat belts to new buses range from $8,000 to $15,000, which can still be a substantial investment—up to 20 percent of the bus’s cost. For New Hanover, the cost has been absorbed by the state, which pays to replace existing school buses.

Liability questions

The National Association for Pupil Transportation and the National School Transportation Association encourage districts to discuss liability when considering seat belts, but refrain from offering legal advice. That includes legal questions such as whether districts are responsible if a student is injured after failing to use a seat belt. The two associations also encourage school leaders to be prepared for questions about seat belts, especially in a bus crash that does not include them.

New Hanover plans to continue its seat belt program, and next year will add 14 new buses with seat belts to its fleet. “It’s not just (protection during) accidents” Nance says. “It’s the prevention, by students being in their seats, of not being a distraction to the bus driver.