Center for Injury Research and Prevention

Child Passenger Safety Beyond Passenger Vehicles: School Bus Safety

September 6, 2016

Last week, I blogged about National Safety Council's (NSC) update to its child passenger safety (CPS) policy statement, particularly on the topic of CPS on airplanes. Another notable call-to-action by NSC involves advocating for 3-point seat belts (also known as lap and shoulder belts) on school buses.

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), school buses provide the safest means of transporting children to and from school. These buses are designed with passive occupant protection in the form of compartmentalization, designed to protect children in front or rear crashes using energy-absorbent seat backs and narrow spacing.

Although a rare occurrence, fatalities do occur on school buses: according to NHTSA, from 2003 to 2012, 55 school-age children died in school-transportation related crashes as school bus passengers. This has led to much debate in recent years about the advantages and disadvantages of adding seat belts on school buses for further protection.

As parents, we instill in our children that they must buckle up when they get into an automobile, yet most days many children board a school bus that has no seat belts, as only six US states require lap belts on school buses. This can make it difficult for parents to explain the conflicting rationale to their children and ensure consistent and proper behavior, no matter the mode of transportation. Providing 3-point seat belts on school buses would also help with mitigating injuries sustained during swerving, hard braking, and minor crashes—injuries that often go unreported.

NHTSA Administrator Mark Rosekind, PhD asserted in NHTSA’s latest official remarks on this issue that every child on every school bus should have the protection of a 3-point seat belt, and that a nationwide push is now needed to achieve this. However, this recommendation is not without its challenges. If an emergency was to happen on the bus, such as a fire, it would be difficult for young, belted children to quickly be removed from the bus. Additionally, school districts may struggle to come up with the necessary resources to retro-fit buses with 3-point seat belts, or to purchase a new fleet of buses.

Based on this, it’s important to conduct a risk vs. reward study to specifically understand if the addition of a seat belt would truly lead to further reduction in injuries and fatalities, and/or lead to unintended consequences which did not exist before their introduction.

I commend NSC for bringing increased attention to the issues of CPS on airplanes and school buses. Although these issues are complex, I am confident that the CPS research and advocacy community can play an important role in optimizing the safety of children for various modes of transportation.