The chief administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration issued an important press release earlier this week. The announcement was significant not only because it impacts the lives and safety of tens of millions of school children across the country, but also because it represents an about-face for the NHTSA.
Though seat belts have long been required in passenger and commercial vehicles, an exception existed for vehicles designed to carry multiple passengers, such as motor coaches and school buses. For years, the NHTSA has counted itself among those groups opposed to putting seat belts on school buses. Their argument was always that school buses are already the safest way for children to get to and from school (a fact backed up by statistics). Given the perceived safety of school buses, the logic was that it didn't make sense to invest the time and money it would take to overhaul the millions of buses already on the road. Opponents of belts on buses argued that a simple cost-benefit analysis showed that the number of lives saved was not worth the potentially great cost.
The NHTSA has now publicly reversed course, coming out strongly in favor of installing seat belts on school buses. In fact, the NHTSA said that it believes every child in America should use a seat belt while riding to and from school, regardless of the chosen mode of transit. Though the NHTSA embraced the idea of belts on buses, it stopped short of an even more sweeping pronouncement. For one thing, the NHTSA said only that it now recommends the use of three-point seat belts on school buses, without crafting new rules to legally require them.
So why the new stance? Experts believe two factors contributed to the change. First, the reality that rollover accidents are not uncommon in bus crashes and that the lack of a safety belt puts children at risk. Though buses are designed to offer support and restraint in the event of a normal collision, these safety features cease being effective in the event of a rollover crash. Three-point seat belts would hold children in position and increase the odds of walking away safely from such an accident.
The second reason behind the change is an interest in consistency. The chief administrator of the NHTSA said that children are told repeatedly by parents and teachers how important it is to wear seat belts all the time. The fact that school buses lack seat belts entirely undermines the safety push, sending a message to kids that belts don't have to be worn every time. By requiring belts in buses, the hope is that the word on safety remains consistent and, with increased consistency, comes increased success.
In the end, there may be costs associated with the new move as it certainly won't be cheap to outfit the millions of school buses on the road today with seat belts. That being said, every child whose life is saved from wearing a seat belt makes whatever cost incurred well worth it. After all, you can't put a price on safety, especially with such precious cargo.
Source: "Feds now recommending seat belts for school buses," by Keith Laing, published at TheHill.com.