A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

Why are there no seatbelts on school buses?

November 6, 1998

Dear Cecil:

Why aren't seat belts mandatory in all school buses?

Cecil replies:

When I first considered this question the words "natural selection" bobbed spontaneously to mind. On examination, however, the main factors are safety and expense. Which one was more important to the people in charge I leave for you to decide.

Their ungainly appearance might suggest otherwise, but school buses are actually pretty safe. On average only 11 children are killed in school bus wrecks each year, compared to the 41,000-plus people who die in motor vehicle accidents overall. On a per-vehicle-mile basis the school bus fatality rate is one-seventh that of other passenger vehicles.

Several factors account for the good record. School buses are taller and heavier than most other traffic and generally travel at moderate speeds. In a collision, high seat backs prevent kids from being thrown great distances, and impact-absorbing materials soften the blow.

The question remains controversial, however. High seat backs don't help much when a bus is hit from the side or rolls over, and some people think more should be done. The national Parent-Teacher Association, for example, has called for seat belts on new buses. The federal government recently began a two-year investigation of school bus safety that will likely result in new precautions. According to Education Week more than two dozen state legislatures have considered mandatory seat belts over the years, although only New York and New Jersey currently require them.

Seat belts wouldn't necessarily make buses safer. On the contrary, some believe they would increase the number of serious injuries. Shoulder harnesses aren't practical in buses as currently designed, and lap belts are likely to cause more head and abdominal injuries because in a collision the wearer is jerked forward from the waist.

Then we get into the cost-benefit analysis. At $1,800 a bus, outfitting the 440,000 school buses in the U.S. would cost nearly $800 million — and when the annual death toll is only 11, how much lower can you go, realistically? Given that three times as many fatalities occur when students exit or enter buses, some think the money might be better spent educating the all-too-oblivious public that when the school bus's stop sign swings out, it means you.

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