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More states require school bus belts. Will it save many lives?

The Texas legislature has provided funding for three-point lap and shoulder belts on every new public school bus in the state. Texas joins New York, New Jersey, California, Florida and Louisiana as the only states to mandate seatbelts on school buses and vans.

Child injuries and fatalities on school buses are relatively rare. Children are more likely to be injured in the family car than to be injured while riding a bus. And in a collision involving a bus, it’s actually pedestrians, bicyclists and occupants of the other vehicle who are more likely to be killed. But if seat belts on the school bus spare even a few young lives, maybe it’s worth it the expense.

How dangerous are school buses?

The American School Bus Council maintains that buses are the safest mode of transportation. According to its website: “Students are 70 times more likely to get to school safely if they take the bus instead of traveling by car.”

According the federal National Highway Transportation Safety Administration, school buses are involved in less than one-half of one percent of all traffic fatalities. And even then, inside the bus is the safest place to be, relatively speaking. The NHTSA says, on average, 134 people die each year in school vehicle accidents. Only 8 percent are on the bus. Another 21 percent are pedestrians and bike riders hit by buses. The vast majority of deaths in school bus crashes are the people in the smaller vehicle. If anyone on the school bus dies, statistically it is more likely to be the bus driver than a student.

When it all shakes out, on average six U.S. students are killed each year while riding a school bus. Nonetheless, the NHTSA is publicly on board with lap and shoulder belts on all school buses. Padded seatbacks do not fully shield children from face and neck injuries in a front-end crash, and provide virtually zero protection in a side-impact collision. Adding seatbelts would save lives and spare hundreds of kids from serious injuries each year.

The prohibitive cost is the barrier

It would take millions of dollars to retrofit every Connecticut school bus with seat belts. The National Association of Pupil Transportation estimates $7,000 to $11,000 per bus to add (two) three-point belts to every seat. The Texas legislation was actually passed years ago but the statute said seatbelts would only be required once the legislature provided funding, as it finally did this September. And the law only applies to new school buses.

Individual school districts are free to add seatbelts, as some Connecticut districts have. For the rest of the buses, it’s not a question of safety but justifying the cost and securing the funding.

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