New report findings from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration show that the most crucial factors for effective seat belt use are training, education, and enforcement. - File photo courtesy Des Moines (Iowa) Public Schools

New report findings from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration show that the most crucial factors for effective seat belt use are training, education, and enforcement.

File photo courtesy Des Moines (Iowa) Public Schools

A new report from a federal agency details the factors that have been found to maximize effective seat belt use on large school buses.

“Education on Proper Use of Seat Belts on School Buses,” from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), is the result of a project the agency sponsored to understand how seat belt use on buses impacts student behavior and bus driver distraction. Work on the project began in 2016 and the report was released in January.

It is based on self-reported findings from school bus drivers and transportation directors and incorporates anecdotal information collected from school districts nationwide. (The project reviewed survey results from 215 school bus drivers in 12 states: Arkansas, California, Delaware, Florida, Illinois, Indiana, Minnesota, New Jersey, North Carolina, North Dakota, New York, and Texas.)

More specifically, the project examined ways that states and school districts can maximize the benefits of the decision to implement seat belts on large buses. It also looked at differences between policies and how they impact proper seat belt usage. (The project included feedback on the use of both lap (two-point) belts and lap-shoulder (three-point) belts.

The team conducting the project sought out school districts that were in different phases of considering or implementing seat belts as well as different categories of implementation, including whether seat belts were required by state law and whether they were required to be used, either by state law or the local school district’s policy.

The project, according to NHTSA’s website, also obtained observational data on the impact of seat belts on student behavior on buses and on bus driver distraction. It examined how school bus drivers carried out policies and what the consequences were for non-compliance.

In general, the report found that the most important factors were training, education, and enforcement. Most survey respondents said seat belts on school buses contributed to calmer and less distracted environments for school bus drivers.

In particular, the most significantly improved environment was seen with students in younger grades, who were reported as being more likely to use seat belts. Additionally, although most bus drivers said that their stress levels decreased because students were calmer or safer, some drivers reported increased stress because they need to monitor students and constantly remind them to wear the seat belts. With a required use policy, bus drivers pointed out that even when students were not wearing their seat belts, they often did not move around the bus because they did not want to advertise their non-compliance.

Policy details found to have the greatest impact on use seemed to be the clarity and strength of the policy’s purpose, seat belt implementation and passenger use requirements, and enforcement procedures. Meanwhile, the most important factors found to be successful in policy planning were training and education procedures, and enforcement of passenger use requirements.

NHTSA recommends, according to the report, that states and school districts considering seat belts on large school buses carefully weigh the overall impacts on school transportation safety.

"Since school buses are already very safe, the added benefit of seat belts on large school buses is small relative to other potential safety measures such as improvements in the safety of child pedestrians as they enter or exit the bus," NHTSA states in the report. "Seat belts on large school buses could provide an overall safety benefit if their installation does not result in tradeoffs with other child safety initiatives and if the added cost does not result in a reduction in the availability of buses.”

The report can be found at the U.S. Department of Transportation National Transportation Library and on NHTSA’s Behavioral Research page.

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