The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration will require higher seat backs in all new school buses by Oct. 21, 2009, and lap/shoulder safety belts in new small school buses by Oct. 21, 2011. Currently, only lap belts are required on small buses weighing 10,000 pounds or less. The rule also sets performance requirements, effective in 2011, for lap or lap/shoulder belts that are installed voluntarily in large buses.
"School buses are the safest way for children to make their way to and from school," says Institute president Adrian Lund (see "School buses: Federal study seeks to address safety," Oct. 2, 1999). "Riding a school bus is far safer than walking to school or even riding in a passenger vehicle."
Once a child boards a school bus, the principal protection in a crash comes from compartmentalization, which refers to the even spacing of seats with high backs that are strong, well-padded, and firmly anchored. The new federal regulation increasing the height of seat backs from the current 20 inches to 24 helps prevent the heads and chests of taller and heavier children from flying over seats during a crash. This lowers the chances of children injuring themselves or others on the bus.
During the past 8 years, an average of 148 people have died each year in crashes involving school buses. Only 6 of the people who died were passengers on the buses, and 5 were bus drivers. Of the remaining deaths, 106 were occupants of vehicles that collided with school buses, 26 were pedestrians, and 4 were bicyclists (1 death was unknown).
Explaining the mandate for lap/shoulder belts in small school buses, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says belts are needed because the smaller buses don't absorb shock as well as the bigger ones. This makes their occupants vulnerable in a crash. Lap/shoulder belts offer better protection in a crash than lap belts alone because the lap belts still allow full movement of an occupant's upper torso, and there's a likelihood of head contact with surrounding surfaces.
The agency says it won't require installation of safety belts in large school buses because there's no conclusive research on the overall benefits. Requiring belts also could limit seating capacity, which might force more students to walk to school or ride in cars, the agency points out. The government will continue to allow state and local authorities to make decisions about safety belts in large buses. At least 5 states already require them.