I had honestly never really thought about this question, despite having ridden on the yellow behemoths countless times over the years. I rode a school bus every day to (and from!) kindergarten, and I can’t remember much about it. Except how much I liked bouncing on the springy seats.
I never thought about why there weren’t seatbelts on school buses while I was riding them—I always assumed that the school buses on which I had the pleasure of being a passenger were as old as dirt, and had just been grandfathered in to the seat belt law. But I never assumed that NEW school buses also didn’t have seatbelts, and I sure didn’t think that there were people who defended a lack of passenger restraints.
But this is, APPARENTLY, a pretty controversial topic.
The argument against seatbelts in buses is given mainly by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), and the school bus drivers themselves.
The NHTSA claims that:
“School age children transported in school buses are safer than children transported in motor vehicles of any other type. Large school buses provide protection because of their size and weight. Further, they must meet minimum Federal motor vehicle safety standards (FMVSSs) mandating compartmentalized seating, improved emergency exits, stronger roof structures and fuel systems, and better bus body joint strength.”
This all makes sense, but still doesn’t answer the question about why no seat belts. Do soldiers riding in tanks get to wear seatbelts? I feel like that's a legitimate question…
I found the perspective of several bus drivers in the comments section of a DotMom's blogpost, a cooperative parenting blog. Each one of the school bus drivers argued AGAINST having seatbelts, with one saying:
“[Imagine if] the bus [DID] have seat belts. A drunk driver cuts the way of the bus driver and in trying to avoid the impact the bus rollovers. The fuel tank is leaking and now we have 55 students trapped on the bus. There's a very high chance that the bus will catch fire. How do We take all those kids out of the bus? What if they went to a river or lake?”
From another bus driver:
"The school district I work for has harnesses for pre-school aged children. If an accident was to occur and we have to evacuate quickly, I would be in trouble! They have four clasps that attach behind the student and it takes a huge amount of precious time to undo them in an emergency. We are told to cut the straps with a razor knife if these situations occur. Although, it is illegal to have a knife on the bus, so where am I supposed to get one? How is a bus driver expected to get 72 children out of a bus safely in an accident"
(Wait, how many children are being crammed onto these buses? Is there really a discrepancy of TWENTY kids between the two bus drivers? Though I guess that’s not really the point…)
The solution, according to one of the bus drivers, is that the “…money should be spent to increase vigilance for drivers that do not respect[...] passing school buses.”
So the arguments against seat belts are that they may make rescue difficult in case of a fiery crash, and that school buses are so incredibly safe, that it would be silly to have them. And that the money that WOULD have been spent on seatbelts should go to other safety measures, such as educating the public that school buses, in fact, carry children. And that you should be really careful around them.
The counterargument is given by the American Society of Pediatrics, the National Coalition for School Bus Safety , and, quite strangely, the very group that argues vehemently AGAINST seatbelts, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (again, NHTSA).
The argument that the NHTSA gives FOR having seatbelts in buses is contained in its“Guideline for the Safe Transportation of Pre-school Age Children in School Buses,” which recommends having a child safety restraints for use of any child “who weighs less than fifty pounds.”
This policy is, apparently, very secretive, as I've never heard anything about it. DotMoms pointed out this very fact in the aforementioned blog post, also wondering, “if a bus has no seat belts, what does one use to strap in the preschooler’s car seat?”
I would like to point out, however, that according to the Center of Disease Control’s Age/Body Weight chart, some girls won’t reach fifty pounds until they’re nine and a half years old, which is around the third or fourth grade. Not exactly pre-school.
All right. Obviously, something’s pretty screwy here. It’s almost as though the NHTSA is just trying to cover all of its legal bases, and doesn’t really care to think critically about the issue. I mean, I don’t even know where you would go about buying one of these “child safety restraint systems” designed specifically for school buses. The internet tells me I can buy it from this company , but they don’t even have prices on the website. Which means they’re probably pretty expensive.
For now? I suppose I’d recommend just holding your nose and riding the bus, unless your child is under fifty pounds. Then, per the NHTSA, I’d reconsider the school bus.