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Should Seat Belts be on School Buses?

The U.S. Department of Transportation and the National Association for Pupil Transportation explain the science of seat belts.

It may seem obvious that seat belts would save lives in bus and train crashes. The reality, however, is a complex mix of physics, practicality, and the fact that in some cases belts do more harm than good.

In the sudden deceleration of an auto crash, seat belts prevent passengers from slamming into dashboards and windshields and from being thrown out of their vehicles. According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, most bus crashes are slower and less hazardous than those in cars or light trucks. And children in school buses are protected by “compartmentalization”—a cocoon of strong, closely spaced seats that have high, energy-absorbing backs. On urban transit buses, subways, and trolleys where many commuters have to stand and need to disembark quickly, municipal governments regard seat belts as impractical.

Last year, however, the DOT proposed requiring lap and shoulder belts on motor coaches, the long-distance lines and charters that travel at high speed between cities. The rule has not yet been finalized.

Federal law already requires seat belts on school buses weighing less than 10,000 pounds. Larger ones, seen as comparatively safer, are exempt. A few states, including Florida, New Jersey, and New York, require two-point belts on big school buses as well, but an argument against them—improperly worn belts can cut into kids’ bodies in a crash, causing more injuries than they prevent—keeps the debate alive.

“If it were something that made sense to everybody,” says Mike Martin, executive director of the National Association for Pupil Transportation, “we would have put them on all the buses 30 years ago.”


This article was first published in September 2011. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.