The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is recommending seat belts for school buses for the first time.
School buses and other multiple-person vehicles like motorcoaches have typically been exempt from federal regulations that require seat belts in most other vehicles, although safety groups have for years pushed for the requirement to be added to buses.
NHTSA Administrator Mark Rosekind said this week that his agency is recommending three-point seat belts for school buses, which cover passengers' shoulders and laps, but he stopped short of saying he would craft new rules to require them.
"NHTSA has not always spoken with a clear voice on the issue of seat belts on school buses. So let me clear up any ambiguity now: The position of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is that seat belts save lives," Rosekind said in a speech to the National Association for Pupil Transportation (NAPT) on Sunday.
"That is true whether in a passenger car or in a big yellow bus. And saving lives is what we are about. So NHTSA’s policy is that every child on every school bus should have a three-point seat belt," he continued. "NHTSA will seek to use all the tools at our disposal to help achieve that goal, and today I want to launch a nationwide effort to get us there."
The seat-belt recommendation for school buses is a big departure for federal regulators, who have historically maintained that school buses are designed to be safer than other passenger vehicles. Regulators have often cited school bus safety statistics that were compiled by bus industry groups like the NAPT and the American School Bus Council.
The pupil transportation association offered a measured response to Rosekind's call for seat belts on school buses.
"[Sunday] at the NAPT Summit in Richmond, Virginia attended by school bus officials from communities across the country, Dr. Mark Rosekind, Administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) underscored that the yellow school bus is the safest way for children to get to and from school," the group said in a statement, noting that the highway safety chief announced the new recommendation at their summit.
"He also called for lap and shoulder seat belts in large school buses and outlined his agency's plans for communicating the benefits to state and local decision-makers—and possibly even opening a rulemaking process to require them," the pupil transportation group continued.
"Absent a federal requirement for belts, NAPT continues to agree with NHTSA that it is most appropriate if the decision to order seat belts on large school buses were left to the States and local jurisdictions," the group concluded. "States and local school districts are better able to recognize and analyze school transportation risks particular to their areas and identify approaches to best manage and reduce those safety risks."
Rosekind admitted in his speech that his position on seat belts for school buses is a departure for the highway safety agency, but he said the new recommendation in favor of seat belts is "consistent with decades of progress in raising seat belts in the minds of the public from novelty to nuisance to 'the car doesn’t move until I hear that click.'
"Seat belts are icons of safety," he said. "And that makes them the single most effective thing we can provide to improve the confidence of parents, policymakers and children. Without seat belts on buses, there is a gaping, obvious hole in our safety measures that sparks questions all of us have to answer. With seat belts, we can build momentum for student pedestrian safety, enhanced enforcement, and more."
Lawmakers who support increasing the use of seat belts cheered the highway safety administration for making the recommendation, although the agency stopped short of issuing a new mandate.
"This highly significant safety step will literally save lives – in fact our youngest and most important lives," Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) said in a statement, although he cautioned about potential resistance from bus industry groups.
"Expect to hear all the specious, tired arguments about the expense of retrofitting buses and the need to conduct cost-benefit analyses to determine whether this move is worth it," Blumenthal continued. "The irrefutable fact is that every child’s life saved by a seat belt is well worth the cost. Public policy should never put profits and bottom lines above children’s lives. I will fight to push NHTSA to complete this goal as quickly as possible.”