Buckle Up but Not on Some School Buses

Buckle up. It's the law in most states -- except if you're a small child getting on a large school bus.

Children nationwide riding on very small school buses will soon be required to wear shoulder belts as well as lap belts, but the government will not mandate seat belts for larger buses, the Transportation Department announced today.

The government unveiled final safety rules for school buses today, sticking to a plan it laid out a year ago in hopes of making students safer.

Kids are currently required to buckle up in cars, but not on the bus -- a discrepancy some parents have disagreed with.

The government said today that the changes were made for small buses because they don't absorb shock as well as large ones.

A video still from a school bus cameraPlay

The new rules do not mandate belts for students riding on larger buses because government officials say adding seat belts on the larger buses could mean fewer seats available for children. That could mean more students rely on riskier forms of transportation, like walking or getting in the car, according to the Transportation Department's National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

"The last thing we want to do is force parents to choose other, less safe ways of getting their children to school," said Transportation Secretary Mary E. Peters in today's statement.

For that reason, the government encouraged a combination of lap and shoulder belts on large school buses, but did not require it. The government has also said the cost of seat belts should not be imposed on school districts when school buses are already, for the most part, very safe.

"If you have all the money that you need and you are not going to sacrifice ridership, there is an added safety benefit by adding belts to buses," said Ron Medford, the administration's senior associate administrator for vehicle safety.

Higher seat backs will also be required on all new school buses to help keep passengers in place during a crash. Four states already require 24-inch seat backs instead of 20-inch seat backs, but those that don't will soon be required to make the change.

In Montgomery County, Md., John Matthews, the school district's transportation director, said his district has elected to have higher seat backs for years and said they make a difference. But he insisted school buses are safe without seat belts.

"We believe the high-backed seats offer added protection," Matthews said. "Going from 20 to 24 inches just increases the size of that egg carton around the student or the compartment that keeps them protected.

Some Hoped for Clearer Safety Rules

Until today, regulations required only lap belts as opposed to both lap and shoulder belts on buses that carry 15 or fewer passengers. According to the National Association of Pupil Transportation, the country's largest school bus industry association, outfitting buses with belts costs $7,000 to $11,000 per bus.

Still, the school bus industry association said encouraging seat belt use without mandating it does not provide clear guidance.

"If you don't make it a mandate, but just a 'best practices,' what have you done for policymakers at the local level?" said Mike Martin, the association's executive director. "You've just rendered school buses somewhat obsolete. If this is a 'best practice,' it is a legit question for a parent as to, 'Why I should continue to put my kids on the school bus if you aren't meeting a best practices recommendation?'"

Martin also said lap and shoulder belts on small buses, as well as high seat backs, make sense, but questioned whether the traffic administration has done enough testing to determine that seat belts on large buses, which are better able to absorb the shock of crashes, really increase safety.

"We don't know if they've tested lap/shoulder belts in anything but front and rear crashes," Martin said. "The most horrific crashes are side-impact crashes, roll-over crashes."

"We would like to think it really is safer, but certainly in the draft rule that NHTSA [National Highway Traffic Safety Administration] proposed we didn't see any evidence that they've done the homework," he said.

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, about 25 million children ride school buses to and from school each year. From 1994 through 2005, there were about 26 deaths per year involving school buses, including drivers, adult passengers, school kids and pedestrians. About six of those deaths were school-age children riding on buses.

Seat Belt Use in 2008

Last month, Peters announced that a record number of Americans had buckled up this year while on the roads. The secretary said Sept. 17 that 83 percent of vehicle occupants use seat belts during the day, up slightly from the 82 percent that used them last year.

"More and more Americans are realizing that the mere seconds it takes to buckle up can mean the difference between life and death," Peters said.

The September report found that in passenger cars, about 84 percent of people wear a seat belt, compared with 74 percent of truck occupants. It also concluded that about 90 percent buckle up on expressways, compared to about 80 percent on slower moving roads.