Should IL require seat belts on school buses?

Some lawmakers in Illinois want to require three-point seat belts on any new, large school buses, the Associated Press reports.

State Representative Lou Lang plans to propose legislation this coming term requiring the seat belts, at an estimated additional cost of between $5,000 and $10,000 per bus. Research has been equivocal on the question of the advantages and disadvantages of seat belts on large school buses, and other states have considered similar measures.

Proponents say “compartmentalization,” where students are held in place by extra padding on seats, can’t protect them in a rollover accident, like the one in Chattanooga, Tennessee, earlier this school year that resulted in the death of five students. Opponents of seat belt legislation say bus accidents more commonly require students to evacuate the bus quickly and seat belts could impair their ability to do so.

Voxitatis has reported extensively on the issue of seat belts on school buses, because Maryland considered legislation last year, which failed:

The AP said Illinois Association for Pupil Transportation president Michael Reinders opposes the seat belt requirement. “What if you end up with more deaths because students can’t get out of the bus fast enough?” he said.

While that statement is good in theory, data do not support Mr Reinders’s fears. There have been absolutely no documented fatalities in school bus emergencies that were caused by students wearing seat belts. However, there’s not much data on this either, since most states don’t require seat belts on school buses.

Others also expressed reservations, citing the chance that enforcing seat belt use would be difficult. Data from New Jersey, one of only six states that require seat belts on large school buses, show that many students indeed don’t wear them as they travel to and from school. This also raises the legal question of liability: Who is liable for damages if a student is injured while not wearing a seat belt?

However, the American Academy of Pediatrics and the National Transportation Safety Board have both endorsed seat belt use, despite the relatively low number of school bus crashes, the even lower number of rollover crashes, and an acceptance that compartmentalization provides some protection.

“That’s the best protection that we can give our kids. It’s what they’re used to in cars,” CNN quoted Deborah Hersman, president of the National Safety Council, as saying. “We know that there are very few fatalities involving children on school buses every year—they are a safe form of transportation—but anything that we can do to make them safer is really our responsibility.”

It may come down to cost. “School bus crash data show that compartmentalization (padded seats) has been effective at protecting school bus passengers,” the AP quoted Naperville Community Unit District 203 spokeswoman Michelle Fregoso as saying. Ms Fregoso seems to be relying on old data, though. More recent data and actual experimentation show that seat belts would be more effective than padded seats at saving lives in certain types of accidents and wouldn’t result in more deaths in others.

About the Author

Paul Katula
Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.