It seems like a no-brainer—seatbelts would definitely increase the safety of school bus riders…right? In reality, the answer to this question isn’t so clear-cut. While proponents claim seatbelts can help in the event of a side crash, critics claim adding seatbelts to buses wouldn’t be worth the cost.
Opponents to these seatbelts point out that school buses already have the best safety record of any vehicle on the road. Statistics from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHSTA) show there are about 6 child fatalities on school buses annually. Compare that figure with the roughly 2,000 children who tragically die in car crashes every year.
While there have indeed been deadly bus accidents in the past, current school buses are expertly designed to absorb blows from the front and back. In addition to being extremely difficult to tip over, school buses are well protected by the law and highly visible to other motorists.
While proponents of seatbelts don’t deny these facts, they believe seatbelts could bring fatality rates even lower. In particular, seatbelt advocates believe seatbelts could reduce the risk of serious injury in the case of a side crash.
To date, there’s very little research investigating the issue of safety belts in school buses. The few studies that we do have, however, show only modest support for implementing school bus seatbelts.
For instance, University of Alabama researchers tracked the safety records of a dozen school buses equipped with seat belts. According to study authors, these seatbelts have the potential to slightly improve overall safety, but the costs associated with this project don’t merit the undertaking.
Interestingly, another study out of Indiana suggested seatbelts might have a secondary benefit: improving student behavior. Researchers at the Bartholomew Consolidated School Corporation found that students on buses with seatbelts were far less likely to get in trouble compared with their non-seatbelt wearing counterparts.
Despite the lack of data on this issue, some states have already enacted laws requiring seatbelts on all school buses. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), the following states already have seatbelt laws on the books:
- New Jersey
- New York
While most states don’t have seatbelt laws yet, that doesn’t mean legislators aren’t interested. Indeed, over 30 states have seriously looked into the issue within recent years.
As more studies take place, lawmakers will have a better sense of whether school bus seatbelts are in the best interest of children. Seatbelt or not, however, the NHTSA estimates it’s currently 70 times safer to transport a child via school bus than in a car.