Local News

Changes to School Bus Seat Belts, Backs Proposed

Posted November 18, 2007
Updated November 19, 2007

— U.S. Secretary of Transportation Mary Peters on Monday proposed improved safety standards for school buses, including lap-and-shoulder seat belts and higher seat backs.

"School buses are designed to protect children, and they do their job well. But any design can be improved upon," Peters said in a news conference at Morrisville Elementary School, which has been part of a pilot project in North Carolina to measure the effectiveness of seat belts on school buses.

"Our proposed rule will make children safer, will put parents at ease and will give communities a clearer picture of how to protect students," she said.

The proposal calls for three-point seat belts – lap and shoulder restraints – on all new buses smaller than 10,000 pounds within three years. School districts would be allowed to choose whether to design the belts into larger buses that are purchased after that time, Peters said.

Smaller buses, which are more prone to rollovers than larger buses, have had lap belts installed since 1977 under federal guidelines.

Federal highway safety money will be available to help offset the cost of having three-point belts installed on larger buses, Peters said. Adding seat belts costs about $10,000 per bus.

"We know that seat belts are a significant investment. We don't want communities to have to choose between limited funds and the safety of children," she said.

Derek Graham, chief of the Transportation Services Section in the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction, said adding seat belts only to new buses would cost the state about $8.6 million per year.

"It's very much a decision that each state – in some cases, each school district – will have to make. We've been looking for some guidance for some time, and the fact that the (transportation) secretary was here to provide some guidance is very encouraging," Graham said.

The proposed federal guidelines also would raise the required height of seat backs on all new buses from 20 inches to 24 inches high within a year, Peters said.

"Higher seat backs mean higher levels of safety for everyone on board," she said.

Research has shown that close, padded seats on school buses protect children like eggs in an egg carton, she said, but "taller passengers can be thrown over seats in a crash, hurting themselves and hurting others."

The proposed changes are the first new recommendations for school bus design in more than 15 years.

There is no federal or state law requiring school districts to have seat belts on large buses. A fatal bus crash in Alabama last year sparked the latest debate on whether that should change.

The state has been studying seat belts on buses since 2003 and has equipped 14 buses with three-point belts.

"There's been a number of issues that have come up – some good, some bad," Graham said of the state's study. "It may be no surprise elementary school students are more likely to wear the belts, middle and high schoolers don't show much interest."

Scott Denton, transportation director for Durham Public Schools, said he believes school bus seats are safe without belts.

"The structure of the bus in general, beginning with seat back heights and padding on seats, make the impact of an accident much more passenger-friendly," Denton said. "It's 13 times more safe to ride a school bus to school than any other form of transportation."

Last year, 262 students in North Carolina were injured in crashes involving school buses. About 750,000 children statewide ride buses to and from school each day.

In addition to the installation cost, other observers said seat belts could mean fewer seats in each bus, which would require school districts to pay for operating more buses.

58 Comments

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  • nowon_yuno Nov 20, 2007

    I'm sure this has been said already, but most of us rode the bus without seatbelts. Why is there a push for this now? They cannot afford fuel to fill the buses and they want to make upgrades to them? Wake county School board sure has its hand out a lot lately. What happened to that bazillion dollars they got a little while ago? More money going in, dumber kids coming out. There has got to be a lot of corruption going on, can't wait until they gets broken wide open.

  • bsybsybsy Nov 19, 2007

    The belt buckle will be used to hit the person next to them in the head or mouth.

  • thegreatrandino Nov 19, 2007

    Didn't you ride a school bus as a kid? This was the most one-side story I've seen. How are you going to make the kids wear the seat belts? How are you going to make them wear them properly? (An improperly worn belt can be more dangerous than not wearing one at all). The story didn't even describe the safety features of the seat (The bus is safe because it's big and yellow, what an idiotic comment!) The seats are higher back to prevent whiplash. They are padded in front to reduce injury when the head travels forward. The little girl that was thrown on the floor probably was sitting on each of the seat. When I was in school, we had to put three in some seats. If you were unlucky to be the third person in a seat you were lucky to get one cheek in the seat.
    You are the very ones that caused this problem with the forced busing!!!!!!!

  • Nancy Nov 19, 2007

    Roadgeek, you bring up another point. Every kid has a backpack (at a minimum), some musical instrument cases, school projects, lunch bags and other assorted stuff they carry to and from school. If anyone thinks there is space for it all, they're mistaken, the kids have to hold them in their laps.

    Now, how long will it take before a bus can roll by the time students getting on a bus get to their seat, sit down and put on seatbelts while their seatmate tries to hold all that stuff for them?

    This is a minor point in the whole debate really, the bigger points are the lack of proof that seat belts will save lives or reduce serious injury to students on school buses and all the data to date says it's not a necessity.

  • Roadmeat Nov 19, 2007

    Even as a kid I had to wonder why school never bother with seatbelts... I remember the time when they didn't matter going into when it was "THE LAW" yes.. I'm datimg myself saying that. I guess I always figured as much as they crammed kids into the seats it wouldn't matter becuase there wouldn't be enough belts available anyways or belts would limit bus overcrowding, which happened alot.

  • Nancy Nov 19, 2007

    "The driver is supposed to monitor the students by frequently checking the inside rear-view mirror. Higher seat backs will make it impossible to see anything the kids are doing."

    Our school buses have 24" seat backs, except for the kindergarten students, you can see enough :) My main concern is seeing a clear aisle and no backs of heads - at least that is what I constantly checked for when I drove for Wake County. Then again, if any kid (elementary, middle or high school routes) was not seated facing forward, my bus didn't roll.

  • Nancy Nov 19, 2007

    "Just wait until a school bus has an accident and kids are injured and hurt because there are no selt belts-"

    hondaman, no, it would be in reverse, lawsuits would happen when they find out little Johnny didn't have his seat belt on and since the school system requires them, the bus driver is then the responsible party to be certain they are worn (and worn properly)

    Good luck with that.

    Now on a lawsuit with no seatbelts, here is one case I found, read the whole article - realize that a seat belt would not have saved the child's life:

    http://www.wtopnews.com/?nid=25&sid=718258

  • ghwhitaker1_old Nov 19, 2007

    The driver is supposed to monitor the students by frequently checking the inside rear-view mirror. Higher seat backs will make it impossible to see anything the kids are doing. Sounds like a bureaucrat with not enough to do.

  • Six String Nov 19, 2007

    Maybe they can make the belts detachable so that the kids and drivers can throw them at vehicles who zoom past stopped school buses? Seat belts might make things safer, but the real danger is when the bus is stopped and the kids are moving on and off.

  • superman Nov 19, 2007

    Just wait until a school bus has an accident and kids are injured and hurt because there are no selt belts-- Anyone see a law suit coming? It is always better to err on the side of safety-- but then putting selt belts in all those buses going to be expensive and surely the school board didnt predict that this was coming either.

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