December 1, 2009
SEAT BELTS ON SCHOOL BUSES
By: Paul Frisman, Principal Analyst
You asked why Connecticut does not require seat belts on school buses and whether other states do.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), which sets national standards for school bus safety, does not requires seat belts on large school buses, which comprise more than 80% of the nation's school bus fleet. However, individual states and school districts can require large buses to have seat belts.
We discuss the arguments for and against the installation of seat belts in school buses below. In brief, NHTSA believes that large school buses have an excellent safety record and that adding seat belts would provide very little improvement at significant cost. Proponents of seat belts say the belts would further reduce injuries and deaths on school buses, as well as improve student behavior and cut down on opportunities for bullying.
The Connecticut legislature has considered 23 proposals to equip school buses with seat belts in the past 21 years. While the Transportation Committee held public hearings on a number of these bills, most recently in 2006, it has not reported any of them favorably. It is difficult to know why these bills failed, because there was no legislative debate. However, representatives of Connecticut school bus companies testified at public hearing on the bills that school buses were already very safe, and that seat belts were costly and impractical.
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), six states -- California, Florida, Louisiana, New Jersey, New York, and Texas -- require seat belts on school buses. However, the Louisiana and Texas laws do not take effect until those states obtain adequate funding. California requires, and Texas would require, new school buses to have lap/shoulder (“3-point”) belts, rather than lap belts. NCSL reports that 14 states considered bills regarding school bus occupant protection in 2008.
The merits of installing seat belts on school buses have been debated for decades. For this report we rely in part on the Congressional Research Service's August 31, 2007 report “Seat Belts on School Buses: Overview of the Issue,” (https://www.policyarchive.org/bitstream/handle/10207/19230/RL34153_20070831.pdf?sequence=2) and the NHTSA October 21, 2008 Final Rule on school bus crash protection (49 CFR 571.222). We also have attached OLR Report 93-R-0495, which goes into more detail on the issues involved.
School Buses and Seatbelt Requirements
School bus seat belt requirements depend on the size of the bus. Federal regulations require seat belts on school buses whose fully loaded weight is less than 10,000 pounds (“small school buses”), but do not require them on buses weighing 10,000 pounds or more (“large school buses”) (49 CFR 571.222). Large school buses make up more than 80% of the 482,000 school buses in the nation's school bus fleet.
Seat Belt Types
Federal school bus requirements refer to two different types of seat belts, (1) lap belts, and (2) lap/shoulder, or 3-point belts. A lap belt is an adjustable strap that goes over the waist. Three-point belts consist of the lap belt plus an adjustable sash that goes over the shoulder, made of one single continuous length of webbing. Studies have shown that three-point belts provide more protection than lap belts.
NHTSA earlier this year upgraded its school bus seat belt requirements, requiring, among other things, that small school buses have 3-point, rather than lap belts, and setting performance standards for 3-point belts voluntarily installed in large school buses.
In Table 1, below, we list 23 bills requiring seat belts on school buses introduced by Connecticut legislators since 1989. Although the Transportation Committee held public hearings on many of the proposals, it did not report any of them favorably. Most recently, the Transportation Committee held a March 6, 2006 public hearing on SB 522, but took no further action.
Table 1: School Bus Seat Belt Proposals before the Transportation Committee
HB 5168 and SB 445
HB 5975, HB 5669, SB 100, and SB 119
HB 5417, SB 86, SB 177, and SB 1199
HB 5719, HB 6581, SB 957, SB 958, and SB 959
HB 5181 and HB 5698
HB 5115 and SB 317
Because the committee did not report these bills favorably there was no legislative debate, making it difficult to know why these bills were unsuccessful. However, representatives of the Connecticut School Transportation Association (COSTA), which represents school bus companies in the state, testified against the proposals at several committee public hearings.
COSTA representatives testified in 1997 and 2006 that school buses did not need to be equipped with seat belts because (1) the buses were already very safe, (2) that lap belts could cause injuries, (3) it would be hard to monitor their use, (4) seat belt installation would be costly, and (5) adding seat belts was the least effective way to improve school bus safety. “So in short, any benefit…that might be derived would be greatly out of line with the…very significant municipal mandate we would be imposing?” Senator Nickerson asked at a March 3, 1997 hearing.
At a March 6, 2006 hearing, COSTA president Donald DeVivo told Senator Boucher that large school bus seats are not rigid enough to support the installation of seat belts, that lap belts could cause injury, and that seat belts would make it harder for children to leave in the event of a fire.
PASSENGER SAFETY IN LARGE SCHOOL BUSES
NHTSA established regulations for school bus occupants in 1976. Although it considered requiring seat belts on large buses, the agency decided that “compartmentalization” would prove more reliable. Compartmentalization refers to the use of high-backed, flexible seats designed to absorb passenger impacts in relatively closely-spaced rows. Passengers can also enter and exit the bus more quickly when they are not restrained by seat belts.
But while compartmentalization protects passengers against front-end collisions, it is less effective when the bus is struck from the side and in roll-over accidents, a point frequently made by seat belt advocates. On April 20, 2009, NHTSA upgraded its school seat belt requirements by (1) increasing the height of seat backs on all school buses from 20 inches to 24 inches above seat-level to better protect students in a crash from being injured by passengers seated behind them; (2) setting performance standards for voluntarily installed 3-point belts in large school buses; and (3) requiring small school buses to have 3-point, rather than lap, belts. The seat belt requirements apply to buses manufactured on and after October 21, 2011. The seat back requirement applies to buses manufactured on and after October 21, 2009. NHTSA's final rule leaves the decision of whether to equip large school buses with seat belts up to individual states. “If a state were to determine that lap/shoulder belts were in its best interest, we encouraged the state to install those systems,” it said.
Arguments For and Against Installing Seat Belts in Large School Buses
Seat belt advocates, including the American Academy of Pediatrics and the National Coalition for School Bus Safety, argue that seat belts would reduce injuries and deaths to school bus passengers. They say that wearing seat belts also would improve student behavior, reduce opportunities for bullying, and cut down on behaviors that might distract bus drivers.
But the National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services and the National Association of School Transportation, among others, contend that school buses are already the safest way to travel to and from school, and that seat belts would offer little or no improvement at significant expense.
Some seat belt advocates also contend that the lack of seat belts on school buses increases the likelihood that young children will not use seat belts in the family car. But a NHTSA study, School Bus Seat Belts and Carryover Effects in Elementary School Children, found that whether seat belts were used on school buses did not affect children's use of seat belts in personal vehicles.
SCHOOL BUS SAFETY RECORD
Number of School Transportation Vehicle Occupants Killed Annually
According to NHTSA, there were 1,409 fatal crashes involving school transportation vehicles in the U.S. between 1998 and 2008. (These crashes involved any vehicle being used as a school bus, regardless of whether it met federal school bus standards.) A total of 1,564 people were killed in those crashes, most of whom were either occupants of the other vehicle in the crash (72% of the deaths) or pedestrians (20%).
Ninety-six of these accidents, or 8%, resulted in the death of at least one school transportation vehicle occupant. In these crashes, a total of 118 people were killed, 49 of whom were drivers (who are required to wear seat belts) and 69 of whom were passengers. This means there was an annual average of 6.3 school transportation vehicle passenger deaths during this 11-year period.
Relative Risk of Traveling By School Bus
A Transportation Research Board (TRB) study on the relative risks of school travel (http://onlinepubs.trb.org/onlinepubs/sr/sr269.pdf) found that about 800 school children are killed in motor vehicle crashes annually during normal school travel hours. Only 2% of these, or about 20 fatalities a year, occur in school bus crashes, and three-quarters of these occur while boarding or departing the bus. The TRB study concluded that traveling to school by school bus is second only to commercial bus travel in passenger safety. (It found that being a passenger in a car driven by a teenager is the least safe mode of travel to school.)
Compared to motor vehicle fatality rates in general, NHTSA states, “the school bus occupant fatality rate of 0.23 fatalities per 100 million vehicle miles traveled (VMT) is more than six times lower than the overall rate for motor vehicles of 1.5 per million VMT.”
Studies of School Bus Seat Belts
Because 3-point belt systems were not available for large buses until the early 2000s, most large school that have seatbelts have lap belts. The CRS report notes that several studies have found that lap belts “are of uncertain benefit”. The report notes that 3-point systems do provide a benefit, but adding them is costly, and additionally may reduce seating capacity because 3-point systems take up more space than lap belts.
(Opponents of installing seat belts contend that, unless more school buses were added, these “displaced” students would have to find other ways to get to school that are inherently more dangerous than the school bus.)
A 2002 NHTSA study found that lap belts helped keep passengers on large school buses in their seat compartment in a crash, but increased the risk of neck injury. The 3-point belt offered the greatest degree of safety when properly used, but could increase the risk of injury when not used properly.
NHTSA estimated that 3-point systems could save about two lives and prevent about 1,900 injuries each year if every child wore one on every trip. However, school districts would have to ensure that student passengers wore the belts, and wore them correctly.
Seat Belt Costs
NHTSA states that it would cost between $183 million and $252 million to install 3-point belts on all large school buses. The federal agency debated whether requiring the installation of these systems to “an already very safe vehicle [would be] reasonable and appropriate when the cost of installing and maintaining lap/shoulder belts…could impact the ability of transportation providers to transport children to or from school or related events or spend funds on other avenues affecting pupil safety.”
The agency concluded that state and local school authorities should consider installing 3-point systems on large buses only if there would be no reduction in the number of children riding these buses to and from school.
“Given the trade-off between installing seat belts…and implementing other safety measures that could benefit pupil transportation or other social welfare initiatives,” NHTSA stated in its final rule, “and given that large school buses are already very safe, we believed that states should be permitted the choice of deciding whether belts should be part of their large school bus purchases.”