School Bus Seat Belt Mandate Urged by Leading Safety Groups

In the wake of a fatal school bus crash in Connecticut, leading highway safety, public health and child protection groups have joined in a petition to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to “promptly mandate” that all school buses be equipped with seat belt systems in every seating position.

The January 9 school bus crash in Hartford claimed the life of one child and seriously injured others. Like the vast majority of large school buses in America, the bus lacked seat belts for its child occupants. In the crash some of the children became flying objects within the bus, impacting other children and the bus’s interior surfaces. “We were all airborne,” one child reportedly said. “Kids were getting thrown all around the bus.”

In their petition, the safety organizations noted that NHTSA has failed to require lap-shoulder belts in large school buses despite decades of evidence they are needed. Instead, the agency has relied solely on requiring “compartmentalization” – high seat backs, padding and seat anchorages – to protect children in crashes of large school buses. Its present rule requires lap-shoulder belts in school buses of 10,000 lbs. GVW or less. However, although acknowledging that lap-shoulder belts would result in “optimum protection” for large school bus occupants, the rule merely suggests that state and local jurisdictions require them. At present, only two states, California and Texas, have such a requirement.

“The laws of physics are not repealed because one bus is longer than another,” the safety groups’ petition said.

Since 1999 the National Transportation Safety Board has been on record as urging NHTSA to promulgate school bus standards requiring systems that retain children “within the seating compartment throughout the accident sequence for all accident scenarios.” Last year the Federal transport-safety watchdog agency issued a report repeating its recommendation and finding NHTSA’s ten years of inaction “unacceptable.” The NTSB report noted that in the overturn crash of an Arizona school bus with no seat belts, five occupants were ejected, with resulting severe injuries to some of them. In contrast, a school bus overturn in Florida – which requires lap but not lap-shoulder belts in large school buses – resulted in no ejections and one serious child injury.

NHTSA’s grant of safety groups’ petition would extend the lap-shoulder belt requirement to large school buses manufactured in the future. It would also provide an incentive for State and local jurisdictions to require retrofitting of existing large school buses with lap-shoulder belts so that they were as child-safe as new models.

The petition was signed by The National Coalition for School Bus Safety (NCSBS), Center for Auto Safety (CAS), Public Citizen (PC), Consumers for Auto Reliability and Safety (CARS), Consumers Union (CU), KidsandCars.org, Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, Consumer Federation of America (CFA), SafetyBeltSafe U.S.A., the Trauma Foundation, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Association of Orthopaedic Surgeons, the Orthopaedic Trauma Association, 2safeschools.org, Safe Ride News, the Advocacy Institute for Children, Belt Up School Kids, the Coalition for Child Safety, Nancy Bauder, Lynn Brown, Norm Cherkis, Ruth Spaulding, and Rhea Vogel. A copy is available online at http://www.autosafety.org/school-bus-seat-belt-mandate-urged-leading-saf.... Questions concerning the petition may be addressed to Arthur Yeager, at (732) 321-0423, or alyeager@aol.com.

NHTSA Denies Petition for Seat Belts on School Buses