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Seat Belts in School Buses: NTSB Wants States to Require Them

While Indiana’s focus for school bus safety has been on how school bus drivers protect children boarding and leaving their buses, there is also renewed focus on a proposal for new school buses to have seat belts.

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has recommended that the 42 U.S. states that currently do not require lap and shoulder belts on large school buses add that requirement for newly purchased buses. The NTSB also has recommended that four other states expand their existing requirements from lap-only belts to lap and shoulder belts.

ABC News said the NTSB was for the first-time promoting seat belts on school buses after releasing findings from a special investigation into two multi-fatality crashes involving school buses in Maryland and Tennessee in 2016. The report included several recommendations for the school districts and other parties in the two crashes, for the two states and for school buses in general.

“Although school buses are extremely safe, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) continues to investigate school bus crashes in which fatalities and injuries occur. Improved oversight of school bus drivers and enhancements to school bus design — such as installation of passenger lap/shoulder belts, electronic stability control, and automatic emergency braking — could prevent such crash outcomes,” the NTSB said in its May 2018 report.

“I feel like we’ve always tiptoed around this issue of seat belt usage and lap (and) shoulder belts in school buses,” NTSB Board Chairman Robert L. Sumwalt told ABC News. “The last recommendation we made on this was in 2013 coming out of a crash in Chesterfield, New Jersey, that occurred in February of 2012. And it was a recommendation which is sort of weak in my opinion.”

The eight states that require all school buses to have seat belts are Arkansas, California, Florida, Louisiana, Nevada, New Jersey, New York and Texas. Arkansas, Louisiana and Texas’ laws, however, are subject to appropriations or approval or denial by local jurisdictions.

Why Do School Buses Need Seat Belts?

School bus seats have high, padded seat backs and energy-absorbing steel inner structures that are secured to the floor of the bus. As long as students remain within the structures of their seats and the seats in front of them, they are protected in a crash.

But this protection is compromised when children are thrown from their seats in side-impact collisions or high-speed rollovers.

Therefore, the NTSB says, new school buses “should provide children with the best protection available, which includes three-point seat belts.”

A company that manufactures seat belts for buses told KGW that it would cost about $7,000 to 10,000 per bus to add seat belts, “so that cost could be part of the reason school districts have not done that.”

Meanwhile, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), which enforces safety performance standards for motor vehicles and motor vehicle equipment, has decided that compartmentalization is “the best way to provide crash protection to passengers of large school buses.”

“Large school buses are heavier and distribute crash forces differently than passenger cars and light trucks do,” NHTSA says. “Because of these differences, bus passengers experience much less crash force than those in passenger cars, light trucks and vans.”

However, small school buses (with a gross vehicle weight rating of 10,000 pounds or less) must be equipped with lap and/or lap/shoulder belts, NHTSA says. “Since the sizes and weights of small school buses are closer to those of passenger cars and trucks, seat belts in those vehicles are necessary to provide occupant protection.”

Indiana and School Bus Seat Belt Laws

Indiana requires child safety restraint systems in school buses that transport preschool children but not on other school buses. School districts are allowed to install seat belts in buses or buy new buses so equipped, as some Central Indiana school districts have.

According to the National Council of State Legislators, Indiana passed legislation in 2013 requiring drivers of school buses with seat belts to instruct students on their use. The law also requires schools that buy buses with seat belts to conduct a public hearing to explain why a bus with seat belts is being purchased instead of using the money for other student safety measures.

Indiana adopted a resolution in 2016 urging the legislative council to study the topic of school buses equipped with three-point seat belts, though the topic has not yet been assigned to be studied.

School Bus Accident Tragedy in Indiana

Indiana adopted a law in 2019 requiring school bus drivers to pick up or drop off elementary school students on the right-hand side of the roadway unless there are no other safe alternatives. The requirement was meant to prevent children from crossing highways while boarding or leaving school buses.

The law was adopted in response to an October 30, 2018 school bus accident in Rochester, Ind., that killed twin brothers Xzavier and Mason Ingle, 6, and their stepsister Alivia Stahl, 9. Maverik Lowe, 11, suffered multiple broken bones and internal injuries and has had more than 20 surgeries.

The motorist, Alyssa L. Shepherd, illegally passed the Tippecanoe Valley School Corporation bus on two-lane State Rural Road 25 in rural Fulton County. The federally mandated school bus stop arm was deployed, and the bus’s red lights were flashing at the time of the early morning collision. Court documents say Shepherd told police she saw the red flashing lights but didn’t recognize the vehicle as a school bus until the children were right in front of her.

Shepherd, 24, was sentenced to four years in prison in December 2019 after being convicted in October on three counts of reckless homicide, criminal recklessness and passing a school bus.

The NTSB is to meet April 7 to determine the probable cause of the collision that claimed the three children. The meeting is scheduled for 9:30 a.m. EDT at the NTSB Boardroom and Conference Center in Washington, D.C. and is to be aired online.

Contact an Indiana Bus Accident Lawyer

The attorneys at Craig, Kelley & Faultless fight for those injured in school bus accidents caused by the negligence of others. If you or your child has been seriously injured in a bus accident in Indiana, whether you were a bus passenger, a pedestrian or riding in another vehicle, you may have a right to demand compensation for your medical bills, lost income, and other losses. Contact an Indiana bus injury attorney at Craig, Kelley & Faultless to discuss your legal options. The case review is free.