SALT LAKE CITY (ABC4) — All of our lives, we’ve heard to buckle up for safety. The National Safety Council even had a catchy jingle to remind commuters in the 1960s. So then why is it that there are no seatbelts on school buses?
According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, it’s because school buses are simply designed differently and have a different kind of safety restraint system.
Large school buses are designed with “compartmentalization” in mind. They utilize protective seating and are created to distribute crash forces differently than a regular passenger vehicle. They are also designed to withstand a rollover better than your everyday car.
Meanwhile, smaller school buses, which more closely resemble an everyday car, are required to have seatbelts.
“Large school buses are heavier and distribute crash forces differently than passenger cars and light trucks,” said the NHTSA. “These differences help bus passengers experience much less crash force than those in passenger cars, light trucks and vans.”
The Utah Department of Public Safety said compartmentalization provides a “protective envelope” of strong, closely-spaced seats with flexible energy-absorbing seat backs. In order to work properly and maximize safety, school bus seats have to follow a strict set of guidelines.
School bus seats have to have a maximum of 24 inches of space and the top of the seat back has to be 24 inches from where a passenger’s hip would be.
A 2002 report to Congress from the NHTSA showed the results of several tests done with crash test dummies and seat belts on standard school buses. When used properly, seat belts had low head injuries but had “generally higher” neck injuries for all test dummies than from the compartmentalization tests.
“Lap belts appear to have little, if any, benefit in reducing serious-to-fatal injuries in severe frontal crashes,” the 2002 report reads. “On the contrary, lap belts could increase the incidence of serious neck injuries and possibly abdominal injury among young passengers in severe frontal crashes.”
Since that report, the NHTSA has begun changing its tune. In 2015, NHTSA Administrator Mark Rosekind said school buses should be fitted with three-point seat belts in order to help improve school bus safety.
The National Transportation Safety Board has been pushing for lap and shoulder seatbelts on school buses. The safety board even renewed its calls after a 7-year-old child was killed and several others were injured in a school bus crash in Tennessee.
An investigation into that crash found that several passengers were not seated properly, resulting in increased injury risk. After the results of the investigation were released in 2022, NTSB Chair Jennifer Homendy said that the crash was a “gut-wrenching” reminder to put seatbelts on buses to prevent a similar tragedy.
The NTSB claims through its research that compartmentalization alone is not enough to prevent all injuries.
As of early 2022, six states have signed into law a requirement for school buses to have seatbelts: California, Florida, Louisiana, New Jersey, New York and Texas. Utah did submit a bill in 2017 requiring school bus seatbelts, however, that bill failed in the House of Representatives on a 33-40 vote.