In response to an inquiry from the Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT), the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) said that the installation of some barriers on school buses may be allowed, subject to some requirements.
Mike Collingwood, IDOT’s vehicle inspection unit manager, contacted the federal agency in June seeking clarification on installing “plexiglass barriers” and clear, plastic “soft shields” to mitigate the spread of coronavirus on the bus. The plexiglass barriers would be installed to the right of and behind the driver’s seat to provide protection from virus transmission between the students and driver. The soft shields would be installed throughout the bus by attachment to the interior roof of the school bus and to the passenger seat backs to help prevent virus transmission between students.
The federal agency responded on Aug. 11 in a letter, published by the National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services and by the National Association for Pupil Transportation, that its regulations would allow the barriers if they are in compliance with the following FMVSS standards:
• FMVSS 205, which addresses “glazing materials.” It details performance requirements for various types of glazing and the locations they may be used inside the vehicles. (For example, NHTSA noted in the letter that it would consider the plexiglass barriers to be “interior partitions,” and “depending on where the glazing is placed, it may be considered ‘requisite for driving visibility’ and subject to heightened requirements.”)
• FMVSS 222, covering school bus passenger seating and crash protection. The barriers should not impede the head protection zone in the bus.
• FMVSS 302, related to the flammability of interior materials.
• FMVSS 217, which addresses bus emergency exits and window retention and release. The barriers should be installed so that they do not prevent the driver and passengers from readily accessing emergency exits.
• FMVSS 111, covering rear visibility. The barriers should not interfere with the driver’s ability to see through the windows needed for driving visibility.
In a webinar presented by Student Transportation Aligned for Return To School Task Force (STARTS) on Tuesday, which covered NHTSA’s response to the inquiry and other safety issues related to installing barriers, Charlie Hood, executive director of NASDPTS, reminded attendees that only local entities can determine what is legal in their jurisdiction.
IDOT’s Collingwood also presented in the webinar. He told attendees that the state agency received many inquiries from districts and contractors requesting modifications to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. They discussed the issue with their legal department and with the Illinois State Board of Education, but were still unsure as to whether the barriers complied with FMVSS standards. He shared in the webinar some photos that IDOT received of proposed barriers, most made of Plexiglass.
Once IDOT received NHTSA’s response, it created rules that include allowing barriers to be installed behind the driver but not to the right side with the driver, due to concerns about visibility.
“We want to make our drivers feel safe, and keep our students safe from [the virus],” he said.