Should FCPS Buses Be Equipped With Seat Belts?

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Nik Popli

Busses unequipped with seatbelts like the FCPS bus pictured here could pose a major safety hazard.

Nik Popli, News Editor

Everyone knows that wearing seat belts in motor vehicles saves lives, but under Virginia law, school buses are exempt from requiring passengers to use seat belts. Presently, there is no federal mandate requiring the use of seat belts on school buses for passenger safety because the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) continually stated that “there is insufficient reason for a Federal mandate for seat belts on large school buses since school bus transportation is one of the safest forms of transportation in the United States.” Yet last month at a transportation summit in Richmond, Dr. Mark Rosekind, Administrator of NHTSA, stated that lap and shoulder seat belts in large school buses would improve school transportation safety.

“School buses should have seat belts. Period. It should be utterly uncontroversial – there is no question that seat belts offer improved safety,” said Rosekind. “Seat belts will save the lives of children who we might otherwise lose in crashes. … And yet for years, decades even, the conversation about school bus safety has gone right past what ought to happen and straight to all the reasons it can’t happen.” His remarks stunned state officials.

While emphasizing that school buses are the safest way for students to get to and from school, Rosekind addressed NHTSA’s findings on how to better protect children with three point safety seat belts, illegal passing of school buses, school zone speeding, loading zone safety and pointed out that “the safety requirements on all school buses for improved emergency exits, roof structure, fuel systems, seating and bus joint integrity ensure that school buses are extremely safe.”

In 2013, National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) Chairman Christopher Hart recommended that the National Association for Pupil Transportation (NAPT) “provide its members with educational materials on lap and shoulder belts providing the highest level of protection for school bus passengers, and advise states or school districts to consider the added safety benefit of seat belt equipped school buses.”

So why have public school districts such as FCPS not yet purchased seat belt equipped buses?  According to NHTSA’s Rosekind, “it’s about money. Ultimately, whenever a safety issue becomes haggling over dollars and cents, safety suffers. This is about children, and we need to focus on them.” Depending on size, a typical new school bus can cost $75,000 to $85,000 and outfitting a single bus with seat belts can cost between $5,485 to $7,346 based on the number of seats and whether a lap belt or shoulder and lap belt is ordered.

According to NAPT Executive Director Michael Martin, “local officials are in the best position to decide whether to purchase seat belts, since these officials must weigh a multitude of unique considerations bearing on purchasing decisions, especially when faced with budgetary constraints.” He points out that “states and local school districts are better able to analyze school transportation risks in their area and identify how best to manage and reduce safety risks.”

Tim Parker, FCPS Assistant Transportation Director, stated that “there are no immediate plans to require seat belts on large/full-size buses, but we continue to assess the need, associated costs, and how to best use available funds.”  Parker added that “safety belts are but one component of our interest in further improving the safety and security of all students and school buses.” Further discussion on adding new buses with seat belts or retro fitting seat belts into the existing fleet will address the additional expense for one of the nation’s largest school systems. Administrators have to weigh safety and budgetary concerns in order to justify a change favoring seat belts on school buses.

While an overriding school system concern would be for parents to have strong confidence in the safety of their child’s school bus by adding seat belts, the National Education Association (NEA) polled its bus driver members who are strongly opposed to seat belts on school buses. Bus drivers insist that it would be impossible to make sure all students keep their seat belts fastened so that they are not injured by the belts in an accident. They also expressed concern that students would not be able to exit the bus in an emergency such as fire if they were belted or trapped in their seats. Bus drivers also concluded that school buses are much safer without seat belts because students can and do get injured from the heavy belt buckles which pose a safety hazard when used as a weapon to harm others. Bus drivers complain of discipline concerns and not being able to supervise 50-70 students at a time while driving with their back towards loud passengers.

Despite administrative concerns, the National PTA and the American Academy of Pediatrics are in favor of equipping all large school buses with seat belts. Those in favor of seat belts on school buses say that teaching children to buckle up in any vehicle should be a consistent message. The National Coalition for Seatbelts on School Buses lists the following as reasons why all large school buses should have seatbelts. (Smaller school buses that weigh less than 10,000 pounds are already required to have them.)

  • If a crash occurs, the use of seat belts will reduce the probability of death and the severity of injuries to children correctly seated in school buses.
  • Seat belt usage improves passenger behavior and reduces driver distractions.
  • Seat belts offer protection against injuries in rollover or side impact crashes.
  • Seat belt usage in school buses reinforces good safety habits.
  • The cost to install seat belts is nominal.

FCPS maintains the largest bus fleet in the country, with 130,000 students riding the bus each day. Langley junior Brandon Kim believes that seatbelts would be an unnecessary expense for the county. “Think about it. There is no way to make everyone put a seatbelt on. Bus drivers can’t look at the students 24/7,” he said. “And what happens when there’s a severe accident? The kids who had seatbelts on are safe but the ones who don’t will not get county support because they were not following a county protocol.”

The position reversal by NHTSA in favor of these overriding safety factors has not yet progressed to the Federal rule-making phase for enforcement of its recommendation by states and local school districts. Yet it appears the safety of children wearing seat belts on school buses is a win for the entire community.