Keeping Children Safe: A Growing Call for Seatbelts on All School Buses   

It is an iconic symbol of childhood and education – a big yellow school bus.  School buses help us keep the promise of a free and appropriate education for all children by ensuring children have a safe way to get to school.  As adults, one of our most important duties is ensuring the well-being of the next generation and school bus safety is an important part of this obligation.  Our San Francisco child injury lawyer fights for injured children and grieving families after school bus accidents, helping them recover needed compensation and helping make the roads safer for all

NHTSA Administrator on School Bus Safety Generally

schoolbusIn November, the Administrator for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (“NHTSA”) Mark Rosekind, PhD spoke about school bus safety with the National Association for Pupil Transportation.  He opened by emphasizing that “[s]chool buses are by far the safest way for children to get to and from school.”   Statistics show more children die each year on the way to/from the bus than while onboard and more than 450 die each year in personal vehicles while commuting to and from school.

Before moving on to the focal issue, the question of seatbelts on school buses, Dr. Rosekind referenced general efforts to improve vehicle safety, encourage “tweens” to use seatbelts, and prevent impaired (e.g., drunk, drugged, distracted, and drowsy) driving.  On the school-specific side, he touted the Safe Routes to School program, school zone speed enforcement, research into safe locations for loading/unloading buses, and efforts to improve reporting of school bus crashes.  Additionally, he noted ongoing research into deterring those who ignore school buses with flashing lights and the stop sign arm activated.

Policy Shift: NHTSA Calls for Seatbelts on All School Buses

While the Administrator discussed school transportation broadly, his focus was the use of seatbelts on school buses.  In the past, with data and arguments on both sides of the debate (see our 2013 post: Buckling Up: Are Seat Belts Necessary for School Buses?), the NHTSA’s position has been far from clear.  The most important takeaway from the speech was a newly clarified position:

“The position of the [NHTSA] is that seat belts save lives. 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.” 

Although it is a change in position on the specific matter, Dr. Rosekind suggests it is consistent with the NHTSA’s mission and the underlying position that seatbelts are a fundamental safety tool.  While admitting there are implementation challenges, he says the issue should not be a matter of any controversy and asks the agency, state/local policymakers, and bus manufacturers to make it happen for the sake of all our nation’s children.

Dr. Rosekind identified three steps the NHTSA will take to make seatbelts a reality on all school buses.  First, he committed to undertake further research on school bus safety generally and on school bus seatbelts specifically.  Second, he said the NHTSA would work with safety groups to address the financial barriers to implementing universal seatbelt availability of school buses.  Third, the Administrator said he would ask the six states that currently require seatbelts on school buses to provide recommendations/insight for making the mandate national and meeting the financial challenges.

It is important to note that Dr. Rosekind’s speech was simply that, a speech identifying a goal.  The NHTSA will have to undertake a rulemaking process to make the mandate of three-point seatbelts on all school buses official.  This process does include a strict cost-benefit analysis.

California’s (Unmet?) Promise of School Bus Seatbelts

California is one of six states that already have a seatbelt mandate for school buses have seatbelts.  Vehicle Code 27316, passed in 1999, provides: “Unless specifically prohibited…all schoolbuses purchased or leased for use in California shall be equipped at all designated seating positions with a combination pelvic and upper torso passenger restraint system.”  The statute only applies to buses built after 2004 or 2005, depending on capacity.  In November 2014, the Orange County Register noted that many school buses still lack seatbelts, in part because buses often remain active for more than twenty years.  A new bus can cost up to $20,000 and adding seatbelts to existing buses can cost thousands, especially because they must be attached to the floor which can mean additional work that can cost almost as much as a new bus.  The author references four districts which, at the time of the article, collectively had belts in 197 of 333 buses.

Our Northern California Child Injury Lawyer on Prevention and Representation

Few things as tragic as the death of a child.  As a child injury law firm in Santa Rosa, Oakland, and San Francisco, we have seen the anguish on the faces of grieving families.  We have also seen the struggle and pain, both physical and emotional, of a families and children when a child is seriously injured.  We are proud to fight for these people.  Attorney Brod works hard to explore every avenue to get our clients the compensation they need and deserve while holding the responsible parties accountable.  This includes potential claims against school bus manufacturers and school districts themselves.

We wish these services weren’t necessary.  We wish every child could grow safe and sound to adulthood.   We urge the NHTSA to continue to make child safety a priority.  Likewise, we urge California to live up to the legislature’s intent and ensure all school buses have the best possible safety tools, including seatbelts.  The cost of implementation pales in comparison to the value of a safe, healthy, and living child.

See Related Blog Posts:

Back to School Safety: School Bus Accidents & School Transportation Safety

National School Bus Safety Week

(Image by John Siebert)

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