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What parents need to know about new national school bus rule


After years of hemming and hawing, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has officially endorsed three-point seat belts on public school buses. But will measures to outfit buses with belts be enough to keep kids safe, and is it worth the cost?

Ever wondered why there are no seat belts on most school buses? After all, it seems ludicrous that the gigantic metal beast that carries precious cargo inside would be exempt from strapping anywhere from 20 to 40 kids into their seats. Believe it or not, there are a number of reasons, but despite that, the NHTSA came out Sunday with an official endorsement of seat belts in school buses.

Good news for parents? Well, maybe. Maybe not.

Currently only six states have seat-belts-on-school-bus laws on the books, and in the past, the NHTSA has insisted that because school buses are already relatively safe when compared to smaller passenger vehicles, it’s up to individual states and districts to make their own decisions.

That’s why some saw the administration’s announcement as a divergence from standard practice.

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Mark Rosekind is the administrator of the NHTSA, and he didn’t mince any words when he spoke, saying:

The position of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is that seat belts save lives. That is true whether in a passenger car or in a big yellow bus. And saving lives is what we are about. So NHTSA’s policy is that every child on every school bus should have a three-point seat belt. NHTSA will seek to use all the tools at our disposal to help achieve that goal, and today I want to launch a nationwide effort to get us there.

There’s no denying that child safety is of the utmost importance, especially when you’ve entrusted your kid to someone else’s care. But there are three main reasons that these new steps toward seat belts in school buses aren’t exactly groundbreaking and may not be the panacea to make our kids safe.

More: School bus drags child down the street

School buses are already really, really safe

School buses are designed to be safe without seat belts. The seats are higher up than in a regular car and arranged in a way that aids in something called “compartmentalization.” They are also wrapped in foam, which decreases injury in the event of a crash.

Speaking of crashes, there aren’t very many of them, and of those, very few result in death: Of the approximately 24 million kids who are bused to school every year, six will die, according to the NHTSA’s own numbers. Six too many, but compare that to the 800 deaths per year of kids riding bikes or walking, and buses sound pretty darn safe.

It isn’t as simple (or cheap) as adding a few lap belts

When the University of Alabama worked with the state of Alabama to begin work on a school bus seat belt pilot project, they found a few really interesting things. The first, as we’ve already covered, is that school buses (even without seat belts) are far and away the safest way to get to school. They also discovered that adding seat belts to buses would require schools to increase the number of buses in their fleets by 8 to 15 percent, since fewer seats would be able to fit. Finally, they found that the project would result in a staggering financial loss — to the tune of more than $100 million in the red.

They too did not mince words: The cost of adding the belts would far outweigh the benefits of what amounted to a microscopic blip upward in safety statistics, and they concluded their findings thus:

“This study documented that school bus seat belts are costly and have negative net benefits (that is, the costs exceed the benefits). If funding is to be used to improve school bus safety, other treatments will likely return higher net benefits.”

You can lead a child to a seat belt, but you can’t make him buckle that bad boy up

Another thing the pilot project discovered is that while parents were convinced school buses with seat belts would be much safer, bus drivers were not. They feared that they would be unable to monitor the kids correctly and that too much of their attention would be focused on policing seat belt usage.

In the same study, researchers noticed that usage rates on the pilot buses were all over the place. On some buses, only 4.8 percent of kids buckled up, and on others, 92.5 percent did.

Which brings us to the final few issues. Kids don’t always listen, and to get them to buckle up continuously, drivers either need to divert their attention from, you know, driving, or schools will need to employ bus monitors to make sure it’s getting done. How much will that cost?

Besides that, Rosekind was clear that three-point harnesses (lap and shoulder) restraints were safest but that this isn’t the case for kids under a certain age or height. Are those kids supposed to bring booster seats with them to school, or is that another cost for school transportation budgets to swallow themselves?

More: Rear-facing your kid’s seat comes under fire in crash test

Every child’s life is precious and worth protecting, and no one could reasonably be opposed to measures that would make kids safer. But there’s always the possibility that this move is less about safety and more about public pressure. Remember, parent perception was measured in the pilot program, and despite all evidence pointing to the fact that seat belts did little to increase safety, that perception remained practically universally in favor of seat belts in buses. Let’s make our very safe buses even safer, yes.

But it’s one thing to want the belts, it’s another to put it into practice. As these changes begin to roll out, it’s going to be up to parents to be clear about their expectations with kids. If you’re excited about the changes, you won’t be alone. But it is going to be important for parents everywhere to discuss seat belt rules and proper usage with their kids so that drivers can focus on the job of getting kids to school safely.

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