Rules of the Road

What price safety? You better buckle up for the debate when it comes to school buses

Washington State Patrol officers inspect the site of a crash between a Blaine school bus and a car at the intersection of at Alderson Road and Blaine Road in October 2013. The two people in the car were seriously injured. No one on the bus was hurt.
Washington State Patrol officers inspect the site of a crash between a Blaine school bus and a car at the intersection of at Alderson Road and Blaine Road in October 2013. The two people in the car were seriously injured. No one on the bus was hurt.

Question: Why are there no seat belts in school buses, public transit buses or private transportation vehicles like charter buses? In regard to these transportation types, we still seem to be in the “let ‘em fly” era, when car occupants – kids and all – were just loose cargo going every which way in the event of a crash.

Answer: You just brought up a $4 billion question. But I’m getting ahead of myself. First, the good news for seat belt advocates: In 2013, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) announced that commercial carrier buses (the ones you hire or buy a ticket to ride on) would be required to have seat belts, starting in 2016. The rule only applies to new buses, and does not apply to public transit buses or school buses.

The big debate is really around school buses, and it’s hard for people not to get emotional and passionate when we discuss the safety of our kids. Advocates for seat belts in school buses say it’s an obvious solution to saving lives. Opponents argue that adding seat belts to buses is an unnecessary expense that could actually cost more lives. Sound counter-intuitive? I’ll explain.

The data on seat belts saving lives is so conclusive that anyone who debates it has to be willfully denying reality. Crash survival rates are directly connected with seat belt use.

Those against adding seat belts to buses don’t disagree. Instead, one argument comes from some research showing that putting seat belts into school buses would reduce seating capacity, forcing some students to use other transportation options to get to school. Since school buses are the safest way to get to school, decreasing school bus ridership puts more students at higher risk.

I’m a little skeptical about this argument, but I’m not a school transportation expert, either. Maybe it’s true.

Even without seat belts, putting your children on a school bus is much safer than driving them to school. In a NHTSA study that reviewed a 10 year span of school travel, researchers found that on average, 625 children are killed each year traveling to and from school. Of those children, four were traveling on a school bus. 490 were occupants in a car.

School buses utilize a method called compartmentalization to protect passengers. Simply, compartmentalization means using tall, padded seats with limited space between rows to keep kids in their seating area during a crash. This works pretty well in front and rear crashes, but it’s lousy for side impact and roll-over crashes. Adding seat belts would certain better protect passengers in those last two types of crashes, undoubtedly saving lives.

So far seven states in the United States have made seat belts on school buses mandatory, but in at least two states there is a catch. Their new seat belt laws only take effect once the state has the funding to upgrade the buses. And that’s really what it comes down to. If adding the seat belts was free, I don’t think there would be any resistance, but with limited resources schools and communities have to decide if it’s worth it.

It’s a big decision. The cost estimate for adding seat belts to a new school bus is around $8,000. Multiply that by the number of buses in a school district and you can see how this becomes a major financial hurdle. Across the U.S. there are an estimated 500,000 school buses. If NHTSA were to require every school bus in the country to have seat belts, we’d have a $4 billion funding problem.

Despite the cost, there is at least some desire to change the law in our state. During the last legislative session in Washington, a legislator proposed a requirement for seat belts on school buses. The bill didn’t pass, but that doesn’t mean it won’t be proposed in the future.

It seems callous to reduce the safety of our children to a cost/benefit analysis, but when it comes to seat belts on school buses, it’s a reality. With a $4 billion price tag, some people wonder if children would be better served by spending that money elsewhere. For the states that have their new law tied to funding, some people wonder if that money even exists.

Adding seat belts to school buses may only save a couple bus riders a year, but I think the long-term impact could be significant. Requiring kids to wear seat belts on their ride to school reinforces a safe behavior that they’ll be more likely to take with them into adulthood, when they’re driving their own cars. And if you’ve ever looked at young driver crash statistics, you know that’s the riskiest driving period in a driver’s life.

Road Rules is a regular column on road laws, safe driving habits and general police practices. Doug Dahl is the Target Zero Manager for the Whatcom County Traffic Safety Task Force. Target Zero is Washington’s vision to reduce traffic fatalities and serious injuries to zero by 2030. For more traffic safety information visit Ask a question.