NHTSA chief on school bus safety, seat belts

Thomas McMahon
Posted on October 5, 2015
Thomas McMahon is executive editor of School Bus Fleet.
Thomas McMahon is executive editor of School Bus Fleet.

School bus safety has been on the front burner for Mark Rosekind since he took the reins at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) in January.

Within weeks of Rosekind’s swearing-in, an ABC News journalist asked him why seat belts aren’t federally mandated on large school buses. The new administrator said that NHTSA was going to take another look at the issue, and a task force was soon assembled.

On July 23, NHTSA held a public meeting that focused on the seat belt issue but also touched on other school bus safety topics (see story on pg. 8 of the September issue).

After the meeting, Rosekind discussed key points that were made, as well as what the agency will consider proposing this fall, in an exclusive interview with School Bus Fleet.
Rosekind told me that a particularly constructive finding was on the topic of “unintended consequences.”

One of the longstanding arguments against a mandate for lap-shoulder belts on large school buses is that the added cost — estimated to be in the range of $7,000 to $10,000 per bus — would force school districts to reduce school bus service, which would in turn force some students to use less-safe modes of transportation to school. In fact, before Rosekind came to the agency, NHTSA itself used that argument, in its 2011 denial of a petition to mandate lap-shoulder belts on large school buses.

Rosekind likened that reasoning to a “diversion” that is “used for not taking action in the first place.” On the other hand, he said that the recent public meeting identified some unintended consequences of seat belts on school buses that could enhance safety. As was noted in the meeting, some districts have seen significant reductions in disciplinary issues on school buses equipped with lap-shoulder belts.

“There are unintended consequences that are positive: reducing driver distraction, improved behavior,” Rosekind said. “People don’t talk about that very much.”

The administrator also told me that he was interested to hear some meeting attendees suggest that funding would not be a problem if there were a seat belt mandate for large school buses. A parallel was made to the EPA’s 2007 and 2010 mandates for diesel engine emission reductions that each added about $6,000 to the cost of a school bus, with no federal funding provided to compensate for the increases.

“School districts found ways to fund that without any changes to school bus service,” Rosekind said. “The example was: This has already been done.”

At least one attendee of the meeting said that NHTSA should be clearer on its position about seat belts on school buses. Rosekind told me that he aims to address that.

“The agency has a historical stance in this area, and I’m not sure that’s been communicated very well,” the administrator acknowledged. “Our last statement was the 2011 [denial of the petition for a mandate]. … It’s time for something different. The task force will explore the full range of options.”

So what are the options? Is a seat belt mandate back on the table?

“At this point, what I can say is that we have opened up a whole new world of possibilities for student transportation,” Rosekind said. “In the fall, NHTSA will probably have a more comprehensive program that we are going to propose. We are going to go after the data. And there will be an education and communications component to that. There will be a rulemaking regulatory component to that. There could be a funding element to that — whether it’s [from] us or others. At the very least, it will be a programmatic, comprehensive approach, other than just seat belts on buses.”

Related Topics: NHTSA, seat belts

Thomas McMahon Executive Editor
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