Riverside Community School District reaches a settlement with the family of a student who died in a 2017 school bus fire.
To belt or not to belt? That is the question that pupil transportation stakeholders have grappled with for decades.
Whether school buses should have seat belts is a complex issue that goes beyond crash protection. Such factors as emergency evacuation, student behavior, bus capacity and budget also loom large in the conversation. There doesn’t seem to be an easy answer.
And yet in California, the seat belt question was decisively answered by state lawmakers, who passed a bill that required new school buses to be equipped with three-point (or lap-shoulder) seat belts. The California requirement went into effect in July 2004 for small school buses and in July 2005 for large school buses.
Many pupil transportation professionals in the state — concerned about the cost of the restraints, students using them as weapons, reduction in bus capacity and the impact on emergency evacuation — met the mandate with trepidation. But that outlook has largely diminished over the decade since the rule went in effect.
"I haven’t heard anyone say, 'We’re going to get out of transportation because of the lap-shoulder restraints.'"
-Anna Borges, state pupil transportation director, California Department of Education
Laws of the land
California is currently the only state with an effective requirement for three-point belts on school buses. Three other states require lap belts on school buses: Florida, New Jersey and New York.
Texas and Louisiana have passed school bus seat belt bills, but both were contingent on funding being allocated to pay for the restraints. Since those two states’ mandates remain unfunded, they have not been enforced.
Some school districts in states that don’t require three-point belts in school buses have voluntarily implemented the restraints in their fleets.
Federally, three-point belts are required only on small school buses — more precisely, those with a gross vehicle weight rating of 10,000 pounds or less, which account for a small proportion of the school bus market.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has long declined to mandate seat belts on large school buses. However, the agency has taken up the topic again this year with a new administrator at the helm — Dr. Mark Rosekind — and a public meeting focusing on school bus seat belts in July.
At the conclusion of that meeting, Rosekind said that a task force would review the information gathered, and NHTSA would then determine a plan of action by the fall. As of press time for this article, no new details were available on NHTSA’s plan.
Buckling under the cost?
Perhaps the dominant concern about equipping school buses with three-point belts is the cost that comes with them: typically a premium of around $7,000 to $10,000 on top of the price of a full-size school bus.
So what impact has that cost increase had on California school districts? State pupil transportation director Anna Borges says that while some California districts made cuts to their regular-education transportation during the late 2000s, those stemmed from the economic crisis, not the seat belt mandate.
“I haven’t heard anyone say, ‘We’re going to get out of transportation because of the lap-shoulder restraints,’” says Borges, who works for the California Department of Education. “They just budget those things in. It didn’t turn out to be as costly as they thought.”
Tim Purvis, director of transportation at Poway (Calif.) USD, offers a similar assessment. The three-point belts were “not a discussion topic that caused us to reduce service,” Purvis says, although he acknowledges that Poway is “a bit of an economic island,” with parents paying $575 per year for their child to ride the bus.
At Elk Grove USD, Gayaldo says that the added cost of the three-point restraints “wasn’t going to make or break our ability to buy new buses.” Economic conditions caused Elk Grove to put off bus replacement for several years, but the funding situation has since improved.
Elk Grove, which has a total fleet of 200 school buses, recently bought 31 new buses at $155,000 apiece (including GPS and video surveillance systems). Gayaldo estimates that the three-point belts accounted for about $10,000 of the total price per bus. “It was pretty negligible for us,” she says.
According to Tony Everett, chief operating officer for seating supplier HSM/C.E. White, the cost of three-point belt systems for school buses has decreased in the past decade.
“We’re manufacturing the product cheaper today than it was 10 years ago — it is significantly cheaper,” Everett says. “We want to get the cost of the product so cheap that we take away that argument.”
Pete Meslin, director of transportation at Newport-Mesa USD in Costa Mesa, California, says that he was initially worried about ongoing maintenance costs for the three-point restraint systems — parts wearing out or getting jammed and having to be replaced.
“Fortunately, that hasn’t turned out to be the case,” he says, adding that his shop only keeps two or three spare seat belt parts in stock.
Ridership remains priority
On the other hand, Meslin sees the addition of three-point belts as part of a broader trend of rising costs for school buses, which could have troubling side effects down the road.
“I don’t think we can keep adding safety features without recognizing that we’re going to lose customers,” he says. “Those customers are going to be unsafe. ... I’m thinking of the kids that don’t get to ride the bus because I can’t afford to buy any more buses.”
Larry Bannon, vice president of new business development for seating supplier SynTec Seating Solutions, says that the priority should always be getting students on yellow buses, whether they have seat belts or not.
“We would not be in favor of lap-shoulder belts being mandated if it meant fewer kids are going to be riding the bus,” Bannon says. “But if you’ve got the funding [for three-point restraints], and if your duty cycle warrants it, go for it.”
Bob Downin sees the issue as a matter of priorities. Downin formerly served as safety coordinator and assistant transportation director at Bartholomew Consolidated School Corp. in Columbus, Indiana, which voluntarily equipped its buses with three-point belts. He points out that school districts typically add other types of equipment to their buses that aren’t required.
“They’ve got GPS, cameras. They’ve got all kinds of devices on that bus that cost as much as the lap-shoulder belts,” Downin says. “We chose lap-shoulder belts over a/c. We don’t have that many hot days in Indiana.”
The contracting route
Some school districts have implemented three-point belts by adding them to their transportation contract, requiring the school bus contractor to provide buses with the restraints.
That was the case at Buffalo (N.Y.) Public Schools. In 2009, the district put its transportation contract out to bid for the first time in about 25 years.
Al Diamico, the current director of transportation at Buffalo, says that he and then-director John Fahey saw the bid as “an opportunity to get what we felt is the best safety equipment out there for our buses. ... John and I felt strongly about the three-point belts.”
The new contract called for the school bus operator to have three-point restraints on 20% of its buses in the first year, 40% in the second year, and so on. The district also specified technology that wasn’t in its previous contract, including GPS and video surveillance systems.
Yet even with all of the equipment enhancements, the act of getting competition flowing with a new bid resulted in a cheaper contract for Buffalo: The district’s cost per four-hour bus (meaning morning and afternoon routes) decreased about 24%.
“Bottom line: We ended up saving money,” Diamico says. “We saved millions of dollars by bidding this out.”
Helena (Mont.) Public Schools also added three-point belts to its contract bid specs, in 2011. Transportation Manager Thomas Cohn says that while there was an increase in its contract rate, the district saw it as a sound investment.
“We looked at the cost. In the end, the final result was, ‘What is the cost of a child’s life?” Cohn says. “You can’t put a price on a child’s life. We determined that the cost of seat belts is relatively cheap compared to the loss of a life.”
Cohn says that assessment of the need for three-point belts came largely from viewing interior surveillance footage of school bus rollover crashes in which students are ejected from their seats.
Three-point belts, Cohn argues, will keep the passengers in their seating compartments in a rollover or side-impact crash. “That’s the type of evidence that shows that if you have seat belts on the bus, those kids are going to survive a catastrophic accident.”
Cohn has a personal as well as professional stake in the matter: His 8-year-old son rides the school bus.
Impact on bus capacity
When California’s three-point belt requirement became effective in 2004 and 2005, another key concern among pupil transportation officials was loss of bus capacity.
Due to their width and thickness, the lap-shoulder-belted seats that were available at the time significantly reduced the number of passengers that a school bus could hold.
For example, in 2006 Newport-Mesa USD bought 11 buses that would normally have held a maximum of 84 passengers, but the three-point restraint seating cut the capacity to 65.
“We are still paying for the reduced capacity of our [older] buses,” Meslin says. “Those buses are the biggest in size, but not in capacity.”
In the years since California’s mandate went into effect, seat belt suppliers have developed lap-shoulder-belted seats that are the same width as a regular school bus seat — 39 inches — and can hold two larger students or three smaller students.
Depending on the configuration of the bus, a few seating positions may still be lost with the incorporation of three-point belts, but Meslin says that typically doesn’t cause a problem.
“The giant concern has been mitigated. … Losing three seats isn’t a big deal for most districts,” he says. “The reality is that these days, we almost never fill our buses to the rated capacity.”
Gayaldo of Elk Grove USD says that her recently acquired buses, which would be 84-passenger capacity with regular seats, hold 78 passengers with the three-point-belt seating.
“I’m OK with that,” she says. “I’m not having to put more buses on the road because of that.”
Will kids wear them?
Of course, equipping a school bus with three-point belts is an exercise in futility if the students don’t wear them. So how do school bus operations get their passengers to comply?
Helena Public Schools has a no-tolerance policy for not buckling up.
“You are suspended from the bus if you refuse to wear your seat belt,” Cohn says.
While there have been some suspension cases, Cohn estimates that 99% of the district’s riders wear their belts on the bus. He attributes the high compliance rate not just to the no-tolerance policy, but to behavior learned at home.
“The fact is our community is ingrained in seat belts,” Cohn says. “You get in mom and dad’s car, you put on a seat belt. It’s something you’re used to to begin with.”
Still, some transportation officials have found that compliance rates are lower for older students who started riding the school bus before seat belts were implemented.
“With elementary kids, the driver says buckle up, and they buckle up,” Gayaldo of Elk Grove USD says. “My high school students ... they’re not used to it. I think we’ll see a lot of improvement as we age them through.”
California regulations require all passengers in belt-equipped school buses to buckle up, and school districts and contractors have to provide training on the proper use and placement of the restraints at least once per school year.
The law in California protects school bus drivers, districts and contractors from criminal charges if a student fails to use his or her seat belt (or uses it improperly). However, they can be charged civilly if reasonable care wasn’t provided for the passenger.
"I was hearing that these three-point restraints would become weapons, that kids would get harmed. ... We haven’t seen any of that."
-Pete Meslin, director of transportation Newport-Mesa Unified School District Costa Mesa, California
Ensuring a quick exit
In pupil transportation, one of the vital safety objectives is being able to evacuate students from the bus quickly in case of an emergency. How seat belts might affect the evacuation process is an important question.
Emergencies that would call for a quick exit include the bus catching on fire, crashing into water or stalling on railroad tracks. While these situations are rare, they have to be taken into consideration.
In September, a Hillsborough County Public Schools bus carrying 27 elementary students careened into a large pond. Jim Beekman, general manager of transportation for the Tampa, Florida-based district, says that after the bus went into the pond, it tipped onto its right side. The bus came to rest partially submerged in the water.
All of the students made it safely back to shore with help from the driver, fellow students and others who responded to the scene.
The bus did not have seat belts — it was built before Florida enacted its requirement for lap belts on school buses in 2001. But when Beekman got the call about the crash, he didn’t immediately know which bus it was — and, more to the point, whether it had belts.
“The scariest part to me was [wondering] what bus number was it. All I could picture was those kids being strapped in,” Beekman says. “The bus ... was half submerged. It wasn’t going any deeper. But the question becomes, ‘What would have happened if those kids had been strapped in?’”
That question is particularly pertinent in Florida, where school buses routinely travel next to or over waterways. As in other states, evacuation drills are essential for preparing passengers for emergencies.
Florida requires school bus evacuation drills to be conducted twice a year, within the first six weeks of each semester. Also, buses are equipped with seat belt cutters, which drivers are trained to use in case they need to cut a passenger’s belt — or their own.
In Montana, Cohn of Helena Public Schools doesn’t see seat belts as a hindrance to a quick exit. Passengers practice unbuckling not just during twice-yearly evacuation drills, but every time they get off of the bus.
“To unbelt yourself, it’s less than a second. You just reach down and push a button,” he says. “In an evacuation, it’s not the seat belts that’s the issue — the exit point itself will be jammed up.”
Some advocates of three-point belts on school buses say that in a crash, the restraints could actually improve the conditions for a safe evacuation.
“The belts help assure that the student is kept properly seated in their original seat location,” says Charlie Vits, market development manager for IMMI’s SafeGuard restraint systems. “When an unrestrained student is launched from this position and location, momentary disorientation and panic occur after the crash, slowing down the evacuation process.”
Vits adds that if an unbelted passenger impacts a hard surface or another passenger during a crash and is injured, “it takes more time to properly extricate that student.”
As for the reliability of the unbuckling mechanism, three-point seat belt systems in school buses are subject to the same federal safety standards as those in passenger cars: FMVSS 209 and 210.
“They are required to release with the same amount of pressure on the button whether or not there is loading on the belt by the weight of a passenger,” Vits explains.
Trial by fire
There have been some real-world emergency evacuations of three-point-belt-equipped school buses in the past couple of years.
One such incident took place on March 27 in Rancho Santa Margarita, California. A school bus transporting 35 middle school students caught fire from the engine compartment. The bus was equipped with three-point belts, although it’s not clear how many of the passengers were buckled up.
Officials said that the school bus driver calmly evacuated the students before the bus became engulfed in flames.
“The bus driver did an excellent job of getting all the students off the bus safely,” the Orange County Fire Authority reported on Twitter. “All the students are safe and no one is injured. The bus driver is a hero.”
California state director Borges says that the evacuation was described as “very orderly. ... The driver did great; the kids did great.”
Another emergency on a three-point-belt-equipped school bus took place on April 24, 2014, in Anaheim Hills, California. Authorities said that an Orange USD bus driver was transporting 11 middle school students when he had a medical event and passed out at the wheel. The bus, traveling at about 50 mph, veered off of the road and crashed into trees. Bystanders helped evacuate the passengers, several of whom were injured.
Pam McDonald, director of transportation for Orange USD, says that all of the passengers were wearing their three-point belts when the bus left their school. However, some students had unbuckled at a bus stop before the crash to check on the driver, who reportedly wasn’t feeling well.
For the students who were buckled, “the three-point belts did what they were designed to do,” McDonald says, “and for the students who weren’t wearing theirs at the time of the crash, compartmentalization worked.”
The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) sent a team to investigate the crash.
“They were looking at the performance of the belts,” McDonald says. “They were very interested in some kids wearing, some kids not wearing their seat belts.”
As of press time, NTSB spokesperson Keith Holloway said that the Anaheim Hills crash investigation was ongoing. The agency may issue a report on it around the end of this year or early next year.
Holloway says that the Anaheim Hills incident appears to be the only crash involving a three-point-belted school bus that NTSB has investigated. However, the agency has investigated crashes in which there were school buses with lap-only belts.
Enhancing occupant protection
Compartmentalization — the closely spaced, energy-absorbing padded seating design that has been required in school buses since 1977 — is one of the key factors in the yellow bus’ record as the safest form of transportation for students. This passive form of occupant protection is particularly effective in frontal and rear impacts when students are seated properly, but federal safety authorities have found that three-point restraints can enhance protection for school bus passengers in severe side-impact and rollover crashes.
In its investigations of two fatal crashes in 2012 that involved lap-belt-equipped school buses — in Chesterfield, New Jersey, and Port St. Lucie, Florida — NTSB found that while lap belts can provide a benefit to most school bus passengers who wear them properly, the addition of shoulder belts would reduce flailing injuries and provide greater protection.
After the Port St. Lucie crash, the School Board of St. Lucie County decided to upgrade from lap belts (which are required by Florida law) to lap-shoulder belts. Don Carter, director of transportation for the district, says that NTSB’s findings in the crash investigation convinced him that three-point restraints enhance student safety and were a worthy investment. The school board agreed.
“It was something we needed to do,” Carter says. “I don’t see the lap belts as being nearly as safe as the three-point belts.”
At Buffalo Public Schools, Diamico has reviewed video surveillance footage from school bus crashes and says he has found that “there is a definite advantage to having the students wear lap-shoulder belts, especially in side-impact crashes.”
Boosting behavior, decreasing distraction
Some school bus operations have found that three-point belts have a positive impact on student behavior because the restraints keep kids where they’re supposed to be: in their seats.
In this way, proponents say, three-point belts reduce distraction for the school bus driver, further enhancing safety.
Downin saw that kind of behavior boost at Bartholomew Consolidated School Corp. When the district began voluntarily equipping its new school buses with three-point belts, the transportation team conducted a study of bus behavior. That included before-and-after video footage showing the same driver and students on a bus without belts, and then on a bus with three-point restraints. The improvement was clear, on that bus and others that had behavioral issues.
“Discipline on the bus went down like 90%,” Downin says. “That’s the biggest advantage [of the three-point belts], as far as I’m concerned.”
Buffalo Public Schools also saw a positive impact on student discipline. The district tracked behavioral incidents over three school years (2012-13 through 2014-15), as its contractor was ramping up the number of buses with three-point belts. Diamico says that there was a 20% decrease in student conduct reports over that time period.
Still, other transportation officials don’t see three-point belts as a key factor in school bus passenger behavior.
Meslin says that Newport-Mesa USD hasn’t experienced a measurable effect on behavior since incorporating three-point belts into the fleet.
“The number of referrals, the number of kids climbing on their seats — it’s roughly the same as it was,” Meslin says. “If I’m planning to climb out the side window of the bus, the three-point belts are not going to stop me.”
More impactful, Meslin argues, are such practices as training drivers on student behavior management, treating the bus as an extension of the classroom — with the same rules of behavior applying — and processing student misconduct reports in a timely manner.
What about weapons?
One of the common fears about seat belts on school buses is that students will use them as weapons, whacking and injuring their fellow riders. That fear has come to fruition with lap belts, but not with lap-shoulder belts, operators say.
Orange USD had an incident in which a special-needs student swung his lap belt buckle around and hit another student in the face. The blow caused bleeding — and a trip to the hospital. McDonald says that the district has not had a problem like that with three-point restraints.
The difference is in the design: The lap-shoulder belt retracts into the seat and has a lightweight tongue, while the buckle is closely attached to the seat and can’t be swung.
Meslin of Newport-Mesa says that when California was in the process of mandating three-point belts on school buses, one of the arguments against the measure was the weapon concern.
“I was hearing that these three-point restraints would become weapons, that kids would get harmed. ... That was a real fear,” Meslin says. “We haven’t seen any of that.”
Creative approach to promoting seat belt use
To encourage students to wear the three-point belts that are on their buses, Buffalo (N.Y.) Public Schools commissioned its performing arts school to make a public service video. Watch these young MCs rap about the importance of buckling up.
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