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Should the Wheels on the School Bus Go Round Without Seatbelts?

Sep 29, 2014 - Articles - by Dodson & Hooks, APLC

A rash of recent school bus crashes in Indiana, Washington State, and New Jersey have safety proponents again calling for federal laws to require seatbelts on school buses. According to school bus accident data reported by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), serious motor vehicle crashes that severely injure or kill drivers or students are very rare. Advocates of seatbelts on school buses, however, cite the need to update existing school bus and seatbelt rules, which are based on old safety theories.

Rash of Crashes

In February, an 11-year-old girl was killed in Chesterfield, New Jersey when her school bus was struck by a dump truck, pushing it into a pole on the side of the road. Her triplet sisters and 14 other students were injured. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) is investigating the crash, as lap belts are required to be worn by students riding on New Jersey school buses. Only six other states have laws mandating the use of seatbelts on school buses. The buses also undergo company and state inspections during the year.

A school bus transporting 50 students in Indianapolis, Indiana hit a concrete bridge support in early March. The school bus driver and a young girl were killed and two students were severely injured. The cause of the crash is unknown, but the driver may have had a heart attack. Around the same time a school bus flipped over in Quincy, Washington when the driver overcorrected as the bus swerved off the road. A few of the 38 students on board and the driver were injured, but no one was killed. Neither drugs nor alcohol was involved.

Government Reasoning

School buses safely carry over 23 million kids a year. According to the NHTSA, 800 children are killed in car accidents traveling to and from school annually, but only around 20 of these deaths involve school buses. Students are eight times safer riding on buses than in cars. School buses are safe because of their large sizes and design, which compartmentalizes students between narrow seat spacing and high seatbacks. States or school districts may require seatbelts on school buses, but there are currently no federal laws mandating this.

Seat Belt Safety Advocates

While school buses in New Jersey do have seatbelts, the buses in Indiana and Washington state did not have them and are not required to use them. Both the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and the National Coalition for School Bus Safety (NCSBS) want to see seatbelts required on school buses and their use enforced. The AAP says that around 17,000 kids are injured on school buses each year and 42 percent of these from school bus crashes. The compartmentalization concept is outdated and seatbelts would help in all bus accidents.

Going Round and Round

When safety advocates petitioned the NHTSA for new school bus seatbelt requirements last year, the agency rejected the proposal. Even though the NHTSA noted that both shoulder and lap belts would help reduce deaths in school bus accidents in a 2002 report, they recently reasoned seatbelts would not save lives in typically fatal impact crashes. In addition, the NHTSA cited that the price tag of requiring seatbelts would be too high.

While the debate about whether the wheels on the school bus should go round with or without seatbelts in the U.S. continues to go round and round, any victims injured in school bus accidents should contact a local personal injury attorney to discuss their legal rights and options. A lawyer with experience litigating school bus crashes may be able to investigate the seatbelt issue further and help you recover for any negligence on behalf of the school bus driver or the bus company.

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