School Buses & Seat Belts

bus with kids in backIt’s the question new parents with incoming kindergartners ask more than any other.

“Why aren’t there seat belts on school buses? Is my child safe?”

It’s a logical question. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends – and many states now require – booster seats in cars until a child is 4 ft. 9 in. and at least eight years old. That’s second or third grade for most kids. So why aren’t seat belts required on school buses?

The answer lies in some interesting numbers:

bus small• Federal law does require seat belts in buses that weigh less than 10,000 lbs. – like the 6-12 seat small bus/vans used for smaller schools or transporting special needs students.

• By comparison, the average family car weighs 4,000 lbs., with an SUV closer to 6,000 lbs.

• A typical 38 ft. yellow school bus weighs an average of 20,000 lbs. without passengers, or up to 27,000 lbs. loaded.bus full legth

• The National Safety Council (NSC) claims schools bus transportation is actually 40 times safer than the family car. It also takes an average of 36 cars off the road per bus, minimizing fuel costs and congestion.

• Every year, 440,000 school buses carry 24 million kids to and from school for a total of 4.3 billion miles.

• On average, six children die each year in a school bus accident compared to 800 children who are killed by walking, biking, or being driven to school in cars annually.

• That’s a 1% fatality rate for buses vs. 23% by adult drivers in cars and 58% by teen drivers.

So in theory, school buses are safe because they’re heavier and designed to keep kids safe. A strategy bus with kids incalled “compartmentalization” is used to build school buses, meaning the seats are purposely spaced tightly together with high cushioned backs to form a protective bubble. A bubble that sits up higher and absorbs impact if necessary. If you ever tried to sit in a school bus seat for a field trip, it’s worse than an airplane ride.

While compartmentalization doesn’t help side crashes or roll overs, the NSC claims that seat belts can actually cause more injury. Many children, especially the youngest kids, often misuse seat belts and can’t correctly fit them to their bodies, particularly when they ride the bus after “the big kids” on the last bus run. And, most people agree that requiring bus drivers to monitor seat belt buckling is unrealistic.

Out of concern for maximizing safety – feeling that six deaths per year is six too many – some districts have lobbied for seat belts in buses. About 200 school districts have installed them (or 1% of the 14,000 districts in the U.S.) at a cost of about $8,000 per bus. At a time when 30% of schools have bus with seatbeltscut or plan to cut transportation costs, finding the money to install seat belts that help marginally is a tough call when weighed against more critical needs of hiring teachers to keep class size down.

It turns out that getting your child on and off the bus – approaching and leaving the school bus pick up and drop off area – is a higher risk than a bus accident. Here are a few thoughts on how to minimize that risk:

• If you’re driving and you see that yellow 20,000 lb icon coming your way, slow down immediately. Watch for children playing nearby. Be aware of the flashing lights on the bus.

• A yellow flashing light means the bus is preparing to stop. So brake and prepare to come to a stop yourself.

bus with falishing red• A red flashing light means the bus is stopped, the arm is extended and children are getting on or off the bus. By law, you must wait until the lights stop flashing before you can drive again.

• If you’re waiting for a bus with your kids, be sure they stand back at least 10 ft. off the curb and have them wait until the arm is fully extended to proceed to the bus. Often times, bus drivers will signal children when it’s safe to go.

One point the numbers don’t tell you. Its a good idea to get to know your child’s bus driver. Introduce yourself, show your appreciation, and encourage your child to build a relationship, too. And keep the phone number of the bus company in your cell phone, just in case. All this will help to keep your child safe and comfortable riding to and from school.

















  1. Leanne Strong says:

    I’m from Upstate New York, and when I was in school (I graduated high school in 2011) you didn’t need 2 wear a seatbelt on a bus in New York State. My brother and I both rode the bus when we were in school, and neither of us ever had a problem. We always wore seatbelts in the car, and we always used them correctly.

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