Why aren’t there seat belts on school buses?

11/15/2012  |  STEVE FRAZEE and BOB KNAPP
school bus safety

As school bus seat manufactures, the most common question we are asked is “Why aren’t there seat belts on school buses?” Our typical answer is “How much time do you have?”

The National Highway Safety Transportation Agency (NHTSA), the governing body of school bus regulations, has done much research on this subject and concluded that seatbelts are not required in large school buses. However, in a new ruling in 2009, it was determined that small Type A school buses — 10,000 pounds or under gross vehicle weight (GVW) — would require three point lap-shoulder belts. The reasoning for this is that the smaller buses are not built to absorb the same amount of energy as the larger buses with the higher GVW.

For years, children have been trained to buckle up, whether it is in a car seat, a booster seat or with the seat belt in their parent’s car. Long gone are the days when stretching out along the back window ledge in mom and dad’s Buick is an acceptable form of transportation. Seat belts have become a way of life, a part of our society. However, the moment children step onto a large school bus, in most cases, seat belts are nowhere to be found. The question is, why?

School buses are uniquely designed to absorb the majority of energy in a crash. The bus is structured in such a way that it utilizes compartmentalization. In other words, keeping its passenger within a compartment that absorbs energy. The seat backs are made to absorb passenger energy when they are thrust forward or backwards in a crash. Think of it as an egg carton; the eggs are cushioned as they move fore and aft as you jostle your groceries into the house. However, think what happens when the egg carton is turned upside down, or the eggs are not properly nestled in the carton. That’s right, scrambled eggs! That is the same situation that happens in school buses. The design of compartmentalization is to absorb the passenger in a forward or rearward collision. However, what happens in the event of rollover or side impact?

School buses are proven to be the safest form of transportation on the road today by utilizing compartmentalization. Three point belts enhance compartmentalization by keeping the passenger in the compartment that the seats and bus were designed to protect. When a student sits in the seat wearing his or her seat belt it makes it nearly impossible to be hanging out in the aisle or turned around facing the seat behind. On board camera footage and driver interviews show a dramatic improvement in student behavior as well. The students are forced to sit in the seat in the safest location possible.

When a student sits in the seat wearing his or her seat belt it makes it nearly impossible to be hanging out in the aisle or turned around facing the seat behind. On board camera footage and driver interviews show a dramatic improvement in student behavior as well.

“Who is going to make the students wear the belts?” That is a famous argument from Transportation Directors and drivers alike. There are expensive electronic monitoring devices on the market that can alert the driver if a seat is unbuckled. However, with budgets stretched so thin today, shelling out more money is not an option. In addition, bus drivers have enough distractions transporting students safely without alarms and lights flashing because seat belts are not fastened.

The most reliable and inexpensive way to ensure belt usage is training. Making the seat belt system similar to the style in a passenger car makes the belts familiar to the students. Just like a fire drill, repetition and familiarity are the best ways to ingrain the use on student’s minds. The negative perception of children being trapped in the bus because they cannot unbuckle their belts is alleviated with training and familiarity.

Another argument is cost. When 3-point belts first came into the market a decade ago, the general belief was it cost over $10,000 per bus to upgrade. Unfortunately, this myth still hangs around today. With technology and the sheer volume of 3-point seats produced by manufactures today, that cost is much lower.

Finally, the old arguments of using the belts as a weapon are mostly disproven. When seats had the loose lap belts, they could be flung around like an Olympic hammer thrower preparing to toss. The design of 3-point belts, integrated into the seat back, does not allow this type of danger. Of course, a big concern is who will unbuckle the children in the event of a crash. Will they be stuck in their seats if the bus is on fire? These are very legitimate concerns. However, training and emergency evacuation drills go a long way in preparing a student for the worst case scenario. In addition, very few people realize that the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (FMVSS) mandate that a seat belt have the same amount of release on a buckle with tension as it does with no tension. Try it. Go out to your vehicle and unbuckle the belt. Now pull on the belt and unbuckle it. It should release in the same fashion with about the same amount of force.

Another point of safety on school buses is emergency egress. We have all seen or been through a fire drill on a school bus where the children are jumping out of the rear emergency door. On a typical school bus, the aisle width at the seat cushion is 12 inches. Not a lot of room to walk through for a child. Now consider the bus driver, monitor or EMT personnel trying to get down the aisle to assist the children. Try walking down an aisle that is 12 inches with a winter coat, backpack or air respirator and fire equipment. Pretty hard to do! At one point, the National School Bus Congress had written in their recommendations that even though the aisle was 12 inches, you had to allow for 15 inches at hip level for easier emergency egress. This seat tapper allowed more room for a safer, more effective emergency evacuation. However, this safety feature was inexplicably dropped.

A few districts are looking to “hedge their bet” on seat belts by going to a new product on the market. A convertible seat is built as a school bus seat but can be changed to a three point school bus seat or an integrated child restraint seat while still in the bus within a matter of minutes. This allows the bus the versatility of changing seat styles. However, some limitations do exist. For instance, some seats on the market allow you to go from standard seat to specialty seat, but not the other way around. Once you change the seat style, there is no going back to the standard bench seat. Other versions of this seat do allow for the switch back and forth, so be cautious and do your homework if your district decides to go this route. Additionally, the convertible seat is more expensive up front. You are paying for the ability to change the seat even if you decide not to change down the road. You really need to weigh the cost benefits of upgrading for the possibility of change in the future.

So, with all these changes and options out there, what are districts to do today? Just like every other product, innovations and technology have made school buses safer. NHTSA has done extensive testing to make school buses as safe as they are today. Three point lap and shoulder belts have been proven to enhance the safety inside the vehicle. However, unless mandated otherwise, it is a decision that each state and each district must make on their own. It is a decision that cannot be taken lightly. Our future is riding on it.

Steve Frazee and Bob Knapp are part owners of The C. E. White Company in New Washington, Ohio. With nearly 50 years experience between them in the transportation seating industry, they have helped build C. E. White into the largest school bus seat manufacturer in North America. They have both worked closely with The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) over the years in the development and testing of school bus seating standards. For more information, visit www.cewhite.com.
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