By David E. Hubler
Contributor, EDM Digest
In November 2016, six students were killed and 31 others were injured in a school bus crash in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Local police estimated that the bus was traveling about 50 miles an hour in an area where the advised speed limit was 25 mph.
When the driver lost control of the bus on a curve, the bus left the road and hit a utility pole. The bus then overturned and crashed into a tree, which caused the roof of the bus to collapse inward.
Prompted by this fatal school bus crash, state representative JoAnne Favors introduced a bill in the Tennessee Senate in February 2017. The proposed legislation would require that all new school buses bought after July 1, 2018, be factory-equipped with a restraint system. By July 1, 2023, all school buses in the state would have to be equipped with a similar restraint system.
Tennessee Senate Passes Bill but Delays Proposed Seat Belt Requirement
The Tennessee Senate passed the bill in April. However, lawmakers pushed back the requirement for a restraint system on new school buses by one year to July 1, 2019. The revised bill also removes the requirement to retrofit all older buses with a passenger restraint system.
Accidents like the Chattanooga school bus disaster – and the failure of state and local lawmakers to take definitive steps to create a mandatory restraint system on school buses, give parents cause for concern every day their children ride the big yellow buses. But should they be so concerned?
School buses transport over 26 million students to school and other activities every day, according to a Government Accountability Office analysis of data for 2000-2014. During that period, school buses were involved an average of in 115 fatal crashes each year. That is just 0.3% of the 34,835 fatal motor vehicle crashes on average each year, GAO said.
“School buses are among the safest vehicles on our nation's highways. Children are safer in the big yellow bus than they are walking, biking or riding in a passenger car to school,” said Rose McMurray, Chief Safety Officer for the Department of Transportation’s Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration. She was addressing the National School Transportation Association Annual Meeting and Convention in St. Louis, Missouri.
“In fact, every year, approximately 800 school-aged children are killed in motor vehicle crashes while traveling to and from school,” McMurray noted. “Fewer than one half of one percent of accident victims are school bus occupants. The rest are primarily and, unfortunately, victims travelling in passenger vehicles,” she said.
Despite the statistics, many parents and other safety proponents believe that a passive restraint system, such as the three-point seat belts found in all passenger vehicles, would further reduce the number of student fatalities and serious injuries.
For years, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration was ambivalent about the seat belt issue. NHTSA’s cautious position was that local school boards were in the best position to decide whether to install seat belts in their school buses and at what cost to their budgets.
“The National Association of Pupil Transportation estimates that fitting school buses with seat belts costs between $7,000 and $11,000 per bus. With state funding deteriorating, and operating levies failing, seat belts on every bus may not be economically feasible,” James W. Pauley III, an attorney with Faruki Ireland & Cox P.L.L., wrote in an American Bar Association online posting.
NHTSA Starts Advocating for Seat Belts on School Buses
In 2015, NHTSA Administrator Dr. Mark Rosekind acknowledged to NBC News that his agency “has not always spoken with a clear voice on the issue of seat belts on school buses.”
Rosekind then announced a new NHTSA position. NHSTA now favors the use of three-point seat belts to keep children safe and he promised that his organization would be more consistent about seat belt safety.
Seat belts save lives, he said. “That is true whether in a passenger car or in a big yellow bus, Rosekind said. “And saving lives is what we are about. So NHTSA's policy is that every child on every school bus should have a three-point seat belt."
"Is this a change in position? Yes," Rosekind said. "But it is consistent with NHTSA's role as the guardian of safety on America's roads. It is consistent with decades of progress in raising seat belts in the minds of the public from novelty to nuisance to 'the car doesn't move until I hear that click.' Seat belts are icons of safety."
NSTA and NAPT Seeking More Investigation of Seat Belt Usage
The National School Transportation Association (NSTA) and the National Association for Pupil Transportation (NAPT) are among the industry groups that are calling for more study on the seat belt issue. They believe local jurisdictions should ultimately determine whether or not to install seat belts.
“We are not opposed to seat belts, but for us this issue is about two things, decisions that are supported by science and data and ensuring that as many children as possible have access to the safest environment in which to travel to and from school,” NSTA explained recently in School Transportation News.
In their joint reply to Rosekind on December 21, 2015, NSTA and NAPT cited NHSTA’s own research: “We estimate that lap/shoulder seat belts would save about 2 lives per year and prevent about 1,900 crash injuries, of which 97 percent are minor/moderate severity (mainly cuts and bruises), assuming every child wore them correctly on every trip.”
The letter also noted that “NHTSA estimates that every year, on average, five students are killed inside a school bus; eleven students are killed in the danger zone area around the school bus; and 800 students are killed travelling to and from school by any means other than by a school bus.”
So, should the nation’s school buses be required to have seat belts for all students? The controversy continues even as momentum continues to swing slowly toward the advent of school bus seat belts for all students.
About the Author
David E. Hubler brings a variety of government, journalism and teaching experience to his position as a Quality Assurance Editor at APUS. David’s professional background includes serving as a senior editor at CIA and the Voice of America. He has also been a managing editor for several business-to-business and business-to-government publishing companies. David has taught high school English in Connecticut and at Northern Virginia Community College. He has a master’s degree for Teachers of English from the University of New Hampshire and a B.A. in English from New York University. David’s 2015 book, “The Nats and the Grays, How Baseball in the Nation’s Capital Survived WWII and Changed the Game Forever,” was recently published in paperback by Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.