WASHINGTON, D.C. — The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) will convene a panel to examine the long-debated topic of seat belts on school buses, agency officials said.

A NHTSA spokesman told SBF that the agency has just started putting plans in motion for the panel. The spokesman said that details on what the group will do, and a timeline on when they will do it, aren’t available at this point, but more information will be released as the plans become more concrete.

Lap-shoulder belts are federally required on small school buses — specifically, those weighing 10,000 pounds or less — but NHTSA has long declined to mandate belts on large school buses.

New NHTSA Administrator Mark Rosekind spoke at the American School Bus Council’s Love the Bus event at a school in Arlington, Virginia, on Tuesday. After the event, he told The Detroit News that a group within NHTSA will study the school bus seat belt issue.

“It’s absolutely appropriate for us to look at every possible way we could make things safer,” Rosekind told the newspaper. “It’s very clear there’s a safety issue, and then there’s an economic one — and that’s the discussion everyone has. … We’ve already put a group together that is now examining this issue about safety belts on school buses.”

NHTSA’s last major statement on the topic was an August 2011 denial of a petition from the Center for Auto Safety and others asking the agency to mandate the installation of three-point seat belts for all seating positions on all school buses.

In the Aug. 25, 2011, edition of the Federal Register, NHTSA said that it was denying the petition because it had “not found a safety problem supporting a federal requirement for lap-shoulder belts on large school buses, which are already very safe.”

NHTSA said that the decision to install seat belts on school buses should be left to state and local jurisdictions. The agency also said that a federal requirement for seat belts on large school buses would increase the cost to purchase and operate the vehicles, which could reduce the availability of school bus service overall, and reduce school bus ridership.

However, with a new administrator at the reins, NHTSA appears to be revisiting its stance on the seat belt issue. Before he was sworn in to lead NHTSA last month, Rosekind served a term as a member of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB).

In 2013, NTSB effectively endorsed seat belts for school buses after investigating the February 2012 fatal school bus crash near Chesterfield, New Jersey, and the March 2012 fatal school bus crash in Port St. Lucie, Florida. The agency's staff said they believe that lap belts can provide a benefit to most school bus passengers who wear them properly, although the addition of shoulder belts would reduce flailing injuries and provide greater protection.

In response to the Chesterfield crash, the NTSB developed close to a dozen safety recommendations on truck and school bus topics. One of the recommendations asked the school bus industry's national associations to provide their members with educational materials on lap-shoulder belts "providing the highest level of protection for school bus passengers."

NTSB’s recommendations are influential, but they have no regulatory authority. NHTSA is the federal agency that is responsible for regulating school buses, as well as other vehicles.

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