Last month, my 4-year-old son went on his first field trip, with his preschool, to a farm 30 minutes away. How exciting! His first school bus ride.
My enthusiasm fell into uneasiness, though, when I remembered: Massachusetts school buses don’t have seat belts. Picturing the little boy I’d strapped in to his car seat a billion times whizzing down the highway freestyle on a bench seat, I seriously considered driving him myself and meeting the class at the farm. In the end, John took the bus and lived, and I chastised myself for being overprotective.
Then the other day, I saw a news story about hybrid school buses. They can save school districts lots of money on fuel costs, but all I could think was, “Do they have seat belts?” The article mentioned nothing about them.
So what is the deal with school bus seat belts? A quick Google search revealed that, every few months, newspapers around the country ask the same question, often after a school bus crash. A few weeks ago, a Maryland crash injured dozens of kids and prompted a Tuesday editorial in the Philadelphia Daily News that declared, when it comes to the anti-belt research, “something is fishy.”
Rather than seat belts on school buses, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), which establishes federal motor vehicle safety standards, requires “compartmentalization.” This involves small spaces between seats and high, cushioned seat backs, which creates a “protective envelope” that works for children of all sizes.
NHTSA says school buses are about seven times safer than passenger cars or light trucks. According to data it released in May, “The school bus occupant fatality rate of 0.2 fatalities per 100 million vehicle miles traveled (VMT) is considerably lower than the fatality rates for passenger cars or light trucks (1.44 per 100 million VMT).” An average of six school age children die as passengers in school bus accidents each year.
However, another federal agency has raised safety concerns about compartmentalization. In 1999, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) said that, in rollovers or accidents involving side impact, school bus passengers do not hit the cushioned seat in front of them. Instead, they hit “either another passenger, the side wall, the windows, or the edge of an adjacent seat,” none of which “are designed to absorb impact energy.”
Therefore, NTSB believes that a better “school bus occupant protection system” involving lap/shoulder belts can and should be developed, so that passengers remain in the seating compartment in all types of crashes, including side impacts and rollovers. In addition, NHTSA should require the new system on all new school buses.
Meanwhile, in its May report, the NHTSA advised states to consider the price tag and the reduced seating capacities of buses with seat belts before requiring them. It suggests that the price and capacity issues could lead to more kids not taking the bus and, statistically, that will lead to more kids getting hurt on the way to school.
To me, that sounds like a copout. If new buses with seat belts have fewer seats, then get a few more buses. Not to be cavalier about the budget constraints towns face, but this is our kids. Why is it acceptable that in a side impact crash or roll over, kids will fly about the bus?
At first, the NHTSA statistics comforted me about John’s bus ride. That is, until I read the Guideline for the Safe Transportation of Preschool Age Children in School Buses. Turns out, NHTSA recommends that preschool age children always sit in car seats when traveling in school buses.
I didn’t know that. Did you?
And I’m left wondering, if a bus has no seat belts, what does one use to strap in the preschooler’s car seat?
I think the Philadelphia Daily News editorial says it best: “Is the [anti-belt] research sloppy - or slanted? Whatever the answer, our kids deserve better.”
Kris is a thirtysomething writer and stay-at-home mom who lives north of Boston with her family.