A school bus in Chattanooga, Tennessee, slammed into a tree last November. Six elementary school students died.
And across the U.S., everyone asked:
Why don’t school buses have seat belts?
Now, 18 states—including Washington—are considering laws requiring schools to add safety belts to their buses.
In Washington, a proposed bill would mandate that all new school buses have a safety belt for each bus rider.
Others would require all existing school buses to be retrofitted with safety belts.
Here’s why school buses don’t have seat belts.
#1: It is expensive.
Olympia School District estimated that adding 3-point safety belts (like those in cars) would cost $10,000 per bus.
That district has 35 buses. The state of Washington has 200 school districts.
State Rep. Gina McCabe (R-Goldendale) suggested that the safety belt installation could be funded by fines from citations for passing school buses.
“In May this last year, 2016, there were over 1,500 violations in one day,” McCabe told a reporter. She stated that there’s more than $600,000 a day in fines in Washington State that could used to pay for seat belts.
Assuming that figure is accurate, and, that money from the shockingly high number of stop-paddle violations is available for safety improvements, is seat belt installation the best use of those funds?
#2: Many more children could be saved by safer routes to school.
A few years ago, I represented a preteen kid who got hit by a van while he was walking home from school. He had a serious brain injury, and is permanently disabled.
That kid had to walk across a 5-lane street that was so poorly designed there was no safe place to cross. It put pedestrians—including school children— in danger every single day.
This was a tragic incident, and unfortunately, there are many more like it.
About six school-age children die in school bus crashes as passengers every. That is still too many preventable deaths.
But compare it to the 433 school-age pedestrians who were killed in 2014.
Another 16,000 were injured.
Children are much more likely to be struck and killed by a school bus than to die inside of it.
#3: School buses are actually much safer than other vehicles.
School buses are the safest mode of transportation for children—even without seat belts.
Although nearly 500 children and teens die each year in car accidents during school travel hours, only about four are killed while riding school buses during those same hours, according to a 2014 report from the NHTSA (PDF).
Should new school buses be built with 3-point safety harnesses?
It’s a difficult question. The obvious answer is yes. It would reduce the likelihood of injury, especially in bus rollover crashes. And it makes safety belt use a habit for children, which makes it more likely they’ll buckle up in cars.
But should existing school buses be retrofit with seat belts?
Perhaps. Retrofitting school buses with seat belts would save approximately 2 lives per year.
How many deaths could be prevented if we made the same investment in safer routes to school?
Children are hundreds of times more likely to be injured or killed in passenger car than on a school bus. They are significantly more likely to be hurt or killed while walking to school.
We see terrible bus crashes in the news—like the rollover in Tennessee—because they are scary and surprising.
We often don’t see the more much common crashes—like a preteen boy who has permanent brain damage because there was no safe route for him to walk home from school.