A fatal Ohio crash has some asking why most school buses still don't have seat belts
When Rudy Breglia heard about the fatal crash of a school bus in his home state of Ohio last week, he says he felt sick. But he wasn't surprised.
Breglia has been on a quest for years to get seat belts installed in all school buses. Spurred by a deadly crash in 2016 in Chattanooga, Tenn., that killed six students, he started the School Bus Seat Belt Safety Alliance.
"I've been working on it for seven years and I feel I have to get it done before that big crash occurs," says the 75-year-old retiree, who raised three sons and has four school-age grandchildren.
An elementary school student died last week after he was thrown from his bus in a crash near Springfield that caused the bus to overturn; nearly two dozen other students were injured. Like most school buses around the country, the vehicle did not have passenger seat belts, although the driver was wearing one.
Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine quickly announced the formation of a task force to study school bus safety, saying "seat belts are certainly one of the things" that will be looked at. But for some, another commission to study the issue might ring hollow.
The National PTA first called for seat belts on school buses a quarter century ago. The organization's Ohio chapter renewed the push last year. "[It's] an absolute tragedy," Angela Revay, president of the Ohio PTA, says about the Springfield crash.
"This has been on the forefront since 1998. So we have to keep revisiting it," she says.
The position of the National Transportation Safety Board has evolved over roughly the same period. The NTSB now also calls for three-point, lap-and-shoulder restraints in all newly purchased large school buses.
Most states don't require seat belts on school buses
Nationwide, most large school buses, like the ones involved in the Ohio and Tennessee crashes, do not have restraint systems. While the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) requires them on small school buses that carry 15 or fewer passengers, large school buses have long relied primarily on "compartmentalization." That term is used to characterize the thickly padded seat backs and close spacing between seats that are designed to create a protective envelope to prevent injuries in an accident.
In most accidents involving these vehicles, this compartmentalization prevents serious injury, says Kristin Poland, deputy director of the NTSB's Office of Highway Safety. School buses are "one of the most regulated vehicles on the road, which is one of the reasons why they do have a very good safety record," she says.
"But when you start to have any sort of crashes that are either off-angle or side-impact crashes or rollover crashes, that's where compartmentalization is incomplete," she says.
Although school bus fatalities are rare — averaging about six passengers per year from 2012 to 2021 — injuries run in the thousands each year.
A few states have taken the lead when it comes to seat belts on school buses. Since 2005, California has required lap-and-shoulder restraints on all newly purchased buses. New Jersey, Nevada and Texas followed suit. Two other states — Florida and New York — mandate a minimum of a lap belt, although the NHTSA says that is less effective than the three-point restraint.
In 1999, Louisiana passed a law requiring school buses to have seat belts, but tied its implementation to the appropriation of funds, which the legislature never provided. Meanwhile, Arkansas mandates a restraint system on school buses, but only if "ten percent (10%) of a school district's qualified electors" request it.
Mike Simmons, public school program coordinator-transportation for the Arkansas Department of Education, calls that state's law "feel-good legislation."
Adding seat belts to school buses can be expensive
Simmons says school districts are free to order new buses with three-point seat belts, but most don't because of the added expense — up to $10,000 more per vehicle. Adding restraint systems to existing vehicles is even more problematic and expensive, says Simmons, who is also president of the National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services.
"It's not just the belts," he says. "You have to have seat belt-ready seats, which are braced differently. So, if you want to go and retrofit a school bus, then you've got to take out all the seats and put new ones in."
The Ohio PTA's Revay agrees. "Any district is welcome to retrofit, but that seems to be a cost-prohibitive factor," she says.
According to a 2017 study, the average age of a school bus was 9 years, and vehicles are typically retired after 16 years. So, requiring seat belts only for new buses means it could be years before a school district's entire fleet has seat restraints.
"Buses do last a long time. So the cost to go back and retrofit is sometimes a burden on districts," Revay says.
Breglia doesn't give so much credence to the arguments about money. He says that when you break it down, the cost of buying new buses with lap-and-shoulder restraints is just $5 per year per student.
"[School] superintendents ... say to me, 'Rudy, I don't know where I would get the money to put the seat belts in the school buses,'" Breglia says. "Then you find out a year later ... they bought a jumbotron for half a million."
Would students even buckle up?
Some school officials also argue that there's no guarantee students would actually use restraints if buses had them. The NTSB's Poland says several studies have looked at this question and concluded that getting kids to comply is not a big problem.
That mirrors the experience in California, which has nearly two decades of state-mandated lap-and-shoulder belts. After so many years, "now it's just second nature" for the students, says Anna Borges, supervising transport programs consultant for California's Department of Education. "They get in the bus, they put on their lap/shoulder restraint system."
A study published in 2007 by North Carolina State University's Institute for Transportation Research and Education found that in districts with seat belt-equipped buses, school principals saw fewer bus discipline problems. What's more, it said some school transportation directors "assigned these buses strategically to address onboard discipline issues."
Seat belts could also help with an ongoing nationwide shortage of school bus drivers, a 2021 NHTSA report suggests. "In addition to decreasing driver distraction via student behavior improvements," it notes, "it is feasible that the presence of seat belts on school buses may result in improved driver satisfaction and retention as well as increased on-board passenger safety due to reduced student movement."
Borges has seen just this in California. "I think it has done a lot for school bus drivers, because everyone is seated [facing] forward," she says. "They aren't jumping around and getting out of their seat."
While the NHTSA estimates that less than 1% of traffic fatalities involve school buses, Poland is concerned that whenever there's a serious crash, such as the one in Ohio, some parents might get the urge to skip the bus and drive their kids to school instead.
"Children are significantly safer on the school bus, whether it has lap/shoulder belts or just compartmentalization alone," Poland says. "What we don't want to see is parents making the decision to drive their students in their passenger car, which is a less safe way of getting them to and from school."
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