Are School Buses Even Safe?


Why don’t school buses have seat belts?

are school buses safe
7 min read

Each day, parents of 25 million American children watch them board a big yellow school bus. That’s more than half of America’s schoolchildren. And when you think about the fact that car crashes are the leading cause of death for children ages 8-15 (as well as 16-20 and 21-24), you have to wonder: how safe are school buses really?

The most obvious reason we question the safety of school buses is that most of them don’t have seat belts. We’ve all been trained to “buckle up for safety,” and “click it or ticket,” knowing that wearing seat belts saves countless lives and keep us on the right side of the law. So if we’re talking about the safety of the smallest and most vulnerable of our population, why don’t we require seat belts for their school buses?

school buses in accidents

Buckle Up for Safety—Except on School Buses?

The federal government does not require standard-size yellow school buses to have seat belts. States make this call, and so far only six states (California, Florida, Louisiana, New Jersey, New York, and Texas) require them, and only California requires shoulder belts.

Buses under 10,000 pounds (picture those mini buses with 6-12 seats), however, are required to have seat belts. They are treated like other passenger vehicles under the law because they have a similar low weight and center of gravity, reports Today.

Today, The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) says seat belts save lives and that all school buses in the U.S. should have shoulder-strap three-point seat belts in them. “That is true whether in a passenger car or in a big yellow bus,” NHTSA Administrator Mark Rosekind said in November 2015.

The Anti-Seat Belt Argument

This statement is a sharp departure from the NHTSA’s former position that seat belts on school buses are unnecessary and even counter-productive because they were already built to be safer than passenger cars. According to the NHTSA then:

School buses are seven times safer than passenger cars.

  • Requirements include improved emergency exits, roof structure, seating and fuel systems, and bus body joint integrity

Seat belts don’t work in school buses the way they work in passenger vehicles.

  • If not worn properly, they can cause serious back and neck injuries
  • Young kids apparently can’t be trusted to belt themselves in properly
  • School buses are instead designed with passive restraints so that children only need to sit down to be safe (children are compartmentalized with seats packed closely together like eggs in a carton and thick foam coverings on seats and seatbacks insulate children during impact)
Each year, 4 kids die from school bus crashes vs. 800 walking, biking or being driven by a parent.

How Many Kids’ Lives Could School Bus Seat Belts Save?

Considering statistics alone, school buses are still by far the safe way for children to get to school. Each year, 800 children die getting to school by walking, biking, and being driven by a parent. In comparison, the NHTSA estimates that four children (of 25 million total) die in a school bus crash each year.

The NHTSA also maintains that shoulder belts could reduce that by half, thus saving two children.

But it won’t come without a cost (something administrators are usually loath to admit and, let’s be honest, weighing the cost of a child’s life is crass, to say the least).

  • There are about half a million school buses in the U.S., and retrofitting them all with seat belts will cost between $7,000 and $10,000 for each bus, meaning the total bill would be in the billions.
  • Not only that, 15 percent fewer children fit on buses with seat belts, meaning already-financially strapped school districts will need a lot more buses.
  • Seat belt design is another hurdle. School buses need to accommodate children aged 6 to 18, which makes proper sizing difficult.

So, to play a brutal devil’s advocate, is it worth billions of taxpayer dollars to save two children each year? (Yikes, that was hard even to type.)

People opposed to seat belts on school buses also say there’s evidence that many school bus fatalities would not have been prevented by the presence of seat belts.

Further, some of those “on the front lines” also largely oppose seat belts, reports the National Education Association (NEA). Some school bus drivers say they worry children could use heavy buckles as weapons, that ensuring each of the 50-70 children on a bus is properly wearing a belt is an impossible task, and finally, that belts could trap panicked children in the event of an emergency evacuation.

are school buses safe in snow

Safe Driving Practices Near School Buses

As legislators and organizations consider the seat belt matter, drivers sharing the road with school buses can take steps to improve school bus safety.

First, no matter which side of the street you’re driving on, if the red stop sign on the bus is extended, you must stop until the driver retracts the sign.

There are also a few important things to keep in mind when driving in school zones:

  • Don’t double park
  • Don’t unload and load children across the street from the school
  • Carpool to reduce the number of vehicles near the school
  • Always stop for crossing guards
  • Never pass a vehicle stopped for pedestrians
  • Never block crosswalks
If school bus stop sign is out, STOP until it is retracted or face a huge ticket.

Looking Forward: Will We Ever See Driverless School Buses?

We’ve explored the role of trucks and emergency vehicles* in a potentially driverless future, but what about school buses? A lot of big considerations with this one…

  • Would parents and safety administrators ever trust society’s most vulnerable members with driverless technology?
  • Could more advanced spacial awareness technology around the large buses prevent bus-pedestrian accidents?
  • What would autonomous school buses accomplish? They wouldn’t necessarily reduce personnel, because even if a bus can drive itself, young children still need supervision.

Still, if the safety and efficiency goals of driverless vehicle technology development are realized, and traffic-related deaths and injuries become a thing of the past, then driverless school buses will be one more way to keep kids safe, and that’s something we can picture administrators and even wary parents getting behind.

School Bus Insurance

(Because we’re The Zebra and even if you’ve never wondered about school bus insurance, we have!)

So how does insurance work for school buses?

Like most things to do with insurance, school bus coverage requirements vary by state. Most states require that school buses carry more insurance than passenger cars are required to have, including extensive liability coverage for the school district, passengers, and drivers. Each school bus insurance policy is designed to meet the state’s requirements.

So all things considered, do you feel safe riding or putting your kids on a school bus?