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School Buses, Safety and Seat Belt Exclusion

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) establishes safety standards for school buses but does not have enforcement authority. It was only in 2015 that the NHTSA deemed three-point seat belts necessary on large school buses (those weighing 10,000 pounds or more).

As of September 2022, eight states require seat belts, but most of them include a conspicuous loophole: If retrofitting costs cannot be accommodated by school budgets, no requirement. Retrofitting would cost approximately $10,000 (possibly more) per school bus. Some argue that more bang for the buck could be achieved with alternative safety measures, such as cameras on school buses to catch motorists who violate school-bus safety laws or providing safer routes for student pedestrians.

Others claim that “compartmentalization” negates the need for school-bus seat belts. Typically, school buses have seats with high backs that are filled with energy-absorbing materials, are placed close together (to form compartments), and are anchored securely. The padded seatbacks absorb the forward energy of a rider and more safely distribute the force of an impact.

The counterargument is what if the bus is hit from the side or rolls over? Kids would go flying in every direction, without padding. Compartmentalization also only works if kids are seated properly — not turned to the side or hanging halfway off the seat. If brand-new buses are outfitted with seat belts, that’s the new (and more expensive) industry standard. School districts would be compelled to upgrade older buses, so they avoid the subject entirely.

An average of six school-bus passengers per year are killed in school-bus crashes; most could have been saved by seat belts. Legislators/school districts argue that seat belts’ benefits do not justify their prohibitive costs. The debate continues.