National Transportation Safety Board Recommends Seat Belts on School Buses

On May 23, 2018, following a series of deadly school bus incidents, the National Transportation Safety Board, or NTSB, announced its recommendation to implement seat belts on all new school buses. A 2017 National Highway Traffic Safety Administration report showed the average number of school bus related fatalities was 30 deaths per year and that 0.4 percent of national traffic fatalities were school-transportation related.

States with laws requiring seat belts on school buses include California, Florida, Louisiana, New Jersey, New York and Texas. Currently, California and Texas are the only states to require three-point seat belts, like those in a car. Florida, Louisiana, New Jersey and New York only require lap seat belts in buses.

The Safety Board’s recommendation suggests states with only lap belt requirements should upgrade their legislation to require three-point safety belts. This comes after the death of a fifth-grader and teacher in New Jersey, where only lap seat belts are required.

California’s law requires three-point seatbelts on school buses manufactured after July 1, 2005 that carry more than 16 passengers, and all other school buses manufactured after July 1, 2004.

In 2017, Texas enacted SB 693, which requires newly purchased school buses to be equipped with three-point seatbelts. The bill does not require the retrofitting of older school buses with seatbelts. SB 693 replaces a bill passed in 2007, entitled Ashley and Alicia’s Law, that provided financial incentives to school districts that fitted school buses with seatbelts, which was reported to be relatively limited in impact.

The common argument made against seatbelt implementation on school buses is the practice of compartmentalization inside the bus. Compartmentalization is the use softer seat backs, seat attachment and a soft steel structure, which all decrease the risk of injury while on a bus. The most common place for injury on a bus is near the point of impact for collision-based incidents, according to bus manufacturers. Side walls and roofs on buses are regulated to prevent collapse of the cabin during rollover incidents. In buses without seatbelts in a rollover incident, occupants are often thrown from their seats, increasing the risk of injury.

School buses are already regarded as the safest way to get to and from school. The implementation of seat belts on buses could diminish fatalities due to incidents inside of the cabin. States are beginning to look at the feasibility of implementation of three-point seat belts on buses due to an increased emphasis on school bus safety.