February 2, 2010
STATE LAWS REQUIRING SEAT BELTS IN SCHOOL BUSES
By: Paul Frisman, Principal Analyst
You asked for information about state laws requiring seat belts on school buses.
Six states—California, Florida, Louisiana, New Jersey, New York, and Texas—require seat belts on school buses. In addition, the University of Alabama is completing a study assessing the impact of installing seat belts on a limited number of school buses in that state.
New York was the first state to require school bus seat belts. The Louisiana and Texas laws do not take effect unless those states obtain adequate funding. California requires, and Texas would require, school buses to have lap/shoulder (“three-point”) belts, rather than lap belts. Some of the laws, such as those in California, Florida, and New Jersey, address liability issues. Some, such as California's and Florida's, require that elementary school students get priority for buses equipped with seat belts. New York's law allows local school boards to decide if students must use the seat belts.
We provide background and describe these laws below. We also have attached copies of the school bus seat belt laws of the six states, and a relevant January 18, 2010 Hartford Courant article.
BACKGROUND ON SCHOOL BUS SEAT BELTS
Federal school bus seat belt requirements depend on the size of the bus. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), which sets national standards for school bus safety, requires seat belts on school buses weighing less than 10,000 pounds, but does not require seat belts on larger school buses, which comprise more than 80% of the nation's school bus fleet (49 CFR 571.222). However, individual states and school districts can require buses weighing 10,000 pounds or more to have seat belts. Six states do so, although implementation in two states depends on funding.
Federal school bus requirements refer to two different types of seat belts: (1) lap belts and (2) lap/shoulder, or three-point, belts. A lap belt is an adjustable strap that goes over the waist. Three-point belts are a 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.
In 2009, NHTSA upgraded its school bus seat belt requirements, requiring, among other things, that small school buses have three-point belts, rather than lap belts, and setting performance standards for three-point belts voluntarily installed on large school buses.
Please see OLR Report 2009-R-0419 for more information on school bus safety and seat belts.
STATE LAWS REQUIRING SEAT BELTS ON SCHOOL BUSES
California requires three-point seat belts on (1) school buses manufactured on and after July 1, 2005 that carry more than 16 passengers, and (2) all other school buses manufactured on and after July 1, 2004. It asks school transportation providers to first allocate seat-belt equipped school buses for elementary school students whenever possible. The state cannot charge any person, school district, or organization with violating this law if a passenger either does not fasten his or her seat belt, or does so improperly (Cal. Veh. Code § 27316).
State regulations require school bus passengers to (1) use the seat belts; and (2) be taught how to use them in an age-appropriate manner (Cal. Code Regs. Title 5, § 14105).
Florida law requires new school buses purchased on and after January 1, 2001 to be equipped with seat belts or other federally-approved restraint system, and requires each school bus passenger to wear a properly adjusted belt when the bus is operating. It exempts (1) the state; (2) counties; (3) school districts; and (4) school bus operators and their agents, including teachers and volunteer chaperones, from liability (1) for personal injury to a school bus passenger caused solely because the passenger was not wearing a seat belt, or (2) for an injury to a passenger caused solely by another passenger's use or non-use of a seat belt in a dangerous or unsafe manner. It requires school districts to ensure that elementary schools receive first priority when they allocate school buses with seat belts, and exempts certain vehicles not used exclusively to transport public school students (Fla. Stat. Ann. § 316.6145 and § 1006.25 (1) (b)).
Louisiana requires the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education to (1) adopt rules and regulations requiring every bus used primarily to transport students to be equipped with seat belts by June 30, 2004, and (2) require the governing authority of each public and private school to comply with these rules and regulations. However, Louisiana makes compliance with the law contingent on the appropriation of funds (La. Rev. Stat. § 17:164.2). According to Louisiana education department consultant Gerald Saucier, funding for the program does not seem likely in the near future.
New Jersey requires school buses to have lap belts or other child restraint systems that meet federal standards and certain minimum seat back heights. It requires students to wear a properly adjusted and fastened seat belt while the bus is operating, and relieves school bus owners and operators of liability for a passenger's failure to wear a seat belt if that failure directly results in an injury to the passenger (N.J. Stat. Ann. § 39:3B-10 and § 39:3B-11).
New York requires school buses manufactured for use in New York on and after July 1, 1987 to have seat belts and increased seat back padding on all passenger seats. It requires school buses scheduled for retrofitting to have these same modifications, but exempts certain older buses from this requirement and allows the motor vehicle commissioner to exempt certain others. However, New York allows individual school boards to determine whether their students must use the seat belts (N.Y. Veh. & Traf. § 383 (5) and N.Y. Educ. 3635-a (1)). According to Peter Mannella, executive director of the New York Association for Pupil Transportation, only about 35 of the state's 690 school districts require their students to use the belts.
Texas requires each (1) bus purchased by a school district starting September 1, 2010 and (2) school-chartered bus contracted for use by a school district starting September 1, 2011, to be equipped with three-point seat belts for the passengers and the driver. But the requirement takes effect only if the legislature appropriates money to reimburse school districts for the cost of installing the belts. According to John Ralph, of the Texas Association for Pupil Transportation, the state has appropriated $10 million for equipping buses with seat belts, contingent on the legislature's approval of an implementation plan. Ralph states that the $10 million is enough to equip approximately 1,500 of the 2,500 new school buses Texas school districts acquired in the 2008-09 school year. He said Texas has about 39,000 school buses operating in the state.
Texas requires the state board of education to develop and provide to each school district instructions on the proper use of three-point seat belts, and makes the board the clearinghouse for districts seeking information on school bus safety, including complying with the seat belt law using school buses originally purchased without seat belts. Under the law, school districts must require students to wear seat belts on buses equipped with them, and they may develop a disciplinary policy to enforce the seat belts' use.
The law allows people to donate three-point seat belts, or money for their purchase, and allows a school district's board of trustees to acknowledge this by displaying a “small, discreet” sign on the side or back of the bus. (But the sign may not be an advertisement for the donor.)
It also requires each school district to file an annual report with the Texas Education Agency on accidents involving its school buses. The report must include information on (1) the type of bus involved, (2) whether it had seat belts, (3) the number of students and adults involved in the accident, (4) the number and types of injuries sustained by the bus passengers, and (5) whether the injured passengers were wearing seat belts at the time of the accident. The agency must publish the reports on its website (Texas Tran. Code Ann. § 547.701 (e) and Ed. Code Ann. § 34.012 through 34.015).
The University of Alabama's Transportation Center is completing a three-year, state-funded study of the impact of installing three-point seat belts on 12 specially–equipped school buses in that state. The buses have video cameras installed to collect data on various aspects of seat belt use and their effect on student behavior. Researchers also are (1) studying (a) national data, including prior safety studies; (b) Alabama school bus crash data; and (c) modifications needed to equip the state's school buses with seatbelts; and (2) conducting a cost-benefit analysis. The study should be completed later this year.