DOT requires seat belts on some new buses

The Department of Transportation (DOT) is moving toward a requirement for intercity buses to be built with seat belts that will go over passengers’ laps and shoulders.

The new rules will apply to all buses that are built beginning in November 2016, the agency announced on Wednesday. But buses that are already on the road will not be held to the standard, which is a defeat for safety advocates who pushed for a uniform standard.

Despite the exclusion of existing buses, Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said Wednesday that the new seat belt rule “is a significant step forward in our efforts to improve motorcoach safety.

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“Safety is our highest priority and we are committed to reducing the number of deaths and injuries on our roadways,” Foxx said in a statement.

Safety advocates have pushed the Obama administration to require seat belts on large buses after a series of high-profile accidents early in the president’s first term in office.

The new rules announced by the transportation department do not go as far as requiring bus companies to retrofit their existing vehicles with seat belts. DOT officials said it was encouraging companies to “voluntarily” add seat belts to buses that are on the road now, however.

The bus industry fought regulations that would have required them to add seat belts to their current fleets, arguing that doing so would cost too much and that travel on licensed bus operators is already largely safe.

"It's a challenge with some of these older coach buses that may have been on the road for 20 years," American Bus Association President Peter Pantuso said in an interview with The Hill. 

"There are differences in manufacturers. Sometimes, the manufacturers may not exist anymore," Pantuso continued. "It's very difficult to apply some sort of one-size-fits-all approach to older coaches."

Pantuso said the industry was taking the Obama administration on its offer to volunteer to add seat belts to older buses in some instances even before the new rules were announced on Wednesday.

"The motorcoach industry has been putting seat belts into existing vehicles for many years, going back to 2009 in some cases," he said.

The bus lobby chief predicted that passengers would force companies to add seat belts to their existing buses with their ticket purchases — or lack thereof.

"Over a period of time, the market will encourage operators to retrofit their existing coaches," Pantuso said.

For its part, the Obama administration said on Wednesday that it was better to have seat belts on some buses than none at all.

“While travel on motorcoaches is overall a safe form of transportation, when accidents do occur, there is the potential for a greater number of deaths and serious injuries due to the number of occupants and high speeds at which the vehicles are traveling,” National Highway and Traffic Safety Administrator David Strickland said in a statement. “Adding seat belts to motorcoaches increases safety for all passengers and drivers, especially in the event of a rollover crash.”

“Buckling up is the most effective way to prevent deaths and injuries in all vehicular crashes, including motorcoaches,” Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administrator Anne Ferro added. “Requiring seat belts in new models is another strong step we are taking to reach an even higher level of safety for bus passengers.”

The new rules will apply to buses that weight more than 26,000 pounds. Local public transit system buses and school buses will be exempted from the requirement.