FARGO — Children are taught to wear seat belts to stay safe in a vehicle, but when they board a large school bus there's no way for them to buckle up.
While federal transportation safety agencies recommend lap-shoulder belts in all new school buses, most full-size school buses on the road don’t have them.
So far, only eight states — none in the Midwest — have passed laws requiring bus seat belts. The reluctance may be due, in part, to a long, strong safety record of school buses.
Don Williams, who oversees student transportation for the North Dakota Department of Public Instruction, said riding the bus is already the safest way to and from school.
“Large school buses are the most heavily regulated vehicles on the highways, so they adhere to a very high safety standard,” Williams said.
Still, accidents happen, sometimes with deadly consequences.
On Jan. 5, 2015, a school bus and a train collided in Larimore, N.D. The bus driver and a 17-year-old girl on board were killed. About a dozen other students were hurt, including some who were ejected from the bus.
School buses use special design features meant to keep children in place, but they don’t protect as well in certain situations, including side-impact and rollover crashes.
Why not add seat belts to further improve safety?
John McLaughlin, general manager at Valley Bus, which provides school bus service in Fargo and West Fargo, said it seems intuitive.
“That’s where our precious kids are. But you peel the onion into layers and it’s more complicated than it might appear on the surface,” he said.
Like an egg carton
North Dakota and Minnesota don't require seat belts in full-size school buses, although North Dakota legislators considered and turned down the idea in both 1995 and 1999.
Only Arkansas, California, Florida, Louisiana, Nevada, New Jersey, New York and Texas have taken the step thus far.
The federal government began requiring smaller school transport vehicles be equipped with lap-shoulder belts in 2011. Those include smaller buses and vans weighing 10,000 pounds or less, considered to be more vulnerable than full-size buses.
The smaller vehicles are often used to transport special needs and younger students, McLaughlin said.
One of those smaller buses was involved in a crash Jan. 2 of this year, when a pickup truck going too fast for winter conditions collided with it in a south Fargo intersection. The bus driver and three students had injuries that were not life-threatening.
Rather than seat belts, the larger, full-size buses rely on a design feature known as compartmentalization to keep children safe, Williams said.
The seat backs are taller, have more padding, and are set more closely together, designed to absorb impact and keep children in place during a crash. Some compare the design to the way an egg carton protects eggs.
Mark Richards, co-owner of Richards Transportation Service, which provides school bus service in Moorhead, Minn., said if children are seated properly, they’re safe.
“Even safer than in a car,” Richards said.
More dangers outside the bus
Federal statistics indicate a student is 70 times more likely to arrive safe on a school bus than in a passenger vehicle, Williams said.
He added that the average of four to six deaths per year in school bus crashes makes up less than 1 percent of all traffic fatalities.
McLaughlin said at least double that number of children are killed each year when they're struck by another vehicle before boarding the bus or after they’re dropped off.
“It’s a lot more dangerous being outside the bus than on it,” he said.
Equipping new school buses with lap-shoulder belts would cost $7,000 to $10,000 per vehicle, McLaughlin said. Retrofitting older buses would cost even more.
Critics have voiced concerns about the ability to evacuate a bus quickly in case of fire or submersion in water if dozens of children were strapped into their seats.
Also, who would make sure every child was buckled? Drivers already have a complicated job, maneuvering through traffic and monitoring student behavior, McLaughlin said.
In the event of a crash, if one student wasn’t buckled and hit their head, “Is that the bus driver’s fault?” he wondered.
Given all of those factors, bus service providers in the Fargo area said they’re not considering seat belts for any new school buses they purchase at this time.
“To me, they’re safest the way they are,” Richards said of school buses.
Even so, a tipping point could someday come for seat belts on school buses.
Williams said his department, and the state, mirror the emphasis from the federal level to equip new school buses with lap-shoulder belts. Still, he thinks the decision needs to be made locally.
“As safe as a school bus is, we could make them a little bit safer with lap-shoulder belts if that school district chooses to purchase them,” he said.
Timeline: School buses and seat belts
1995 — North Dakota lawmakers defeat a bill requiring seat belts on school buses, despite support from state health and transportation departments.
1999 — North Dakota lawmakers again defeat a bill requiring seat belts on school buses, citing extra cost and the possibility that lap belts might cause more injuries to smaller children.
1999 — Following a three-year study, the National Transportation Safety Board decides against recommending seat belts in school buses, citing increased injuries to children.
2007 — Following a rollover bus crash in Houston, Texas, in 2006 that killed two soccer players and seriously injured several others, parents lobbied the local school board to buy buses equipped with lap-shoulder belts. This led to passage of a bill requiring such restraints on all Texas school buses.
2011 — A federal rule takes effect requiring lap-shoulder belts for smaller school buses of 10,000 pounds or less.
2018 — The NTSB recommends for the first time that all new school buses be equipped with lap-shoulder belts. While the board makes safety recommendations, it lacks the power to implement them.