You might not know this if you’ve never ventured far from New Jersey, but we are one of only six states in the country that requires school buses to have seat belts. That might seem outrageous given how important seat belts are to protecting drivers and passengers from serious injury in crashes. If passenger vehicles all have seat belts, why are we not doing everything we can to protect our children from bus crash injuries?
Do Seat Belts Make School Buses Safer?
The answer is more nuanced than you might think. Federal law requires school bus seat belts only on buses that weigh less than 10,000 pounds, and your typical school bus will exceed that weight. Why do small buses need seat belts, but not large buses?
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration performed a cost/benefit analysis and determined that the costs of equipping every school bus with seat belts outweighs the potential benefits.
Are We Prioritizing Money Over Child Safety in this Country?
According to the data, perhaps not. Every year, over 400,000 school buses shuttle 25 million children over four billion miles, and yet, school bus accidents only lead to 10 child fatalities every year. In most cases, seat belts would not prevent those deaths. Additionally, we build large school buses with safety in mind. They are higher off the ground than most other vehicles, which keeps children above impact sites. The tight packing of seats helps achieve compartmentalization, meaning that the seats absorb the brunt force of impacts, protecting the children inside, much like seat belts should.
Another thing to consider is that we can’t expect bus drivers to ensure that each child is using the seat belt correctly. Improper use of lap and shoulder belts could lead to serious abdominal and neck injuries for children in crashes. Additionally, students may be unable to undo their seat belts following a crash, trapping them in a potentially dangerous situation.
But, if we save even one life by adding seat belts to school buses, isn’t the cost worth it? While you cannot put a price on a human life, installing seat belts on every bus may, in a roundabout way, put children in more dangerous situations. Every year, 800 children die while walking, biking or riding in a passenger car to and from school. By this standard, riding a school bus is 40 times safer than riding in the family car, per the National Safety Council (NSC). Putting seat belts in school buses may end up reducing the total capacity of the bus, forcing kids to seek alternate methods of transportation, which, in turn, puts them at much greater risk of injury or death.