The National Transportation Safety Board recommends that new school buses have seat belts. It notes that, without them, rollover crashes can kill kids.
The American Academy of Pediatrics also backs bus seat belts.
National Highway Traffic Safety Administration head Mark Rosekind said in 2015 that, “I want us to concentrate on this simple, basic statement: School buses should have seat belts. Period.”
Rosekind left the NHTSA job when President Donald Trump took office, and the highway administration has stopped pushing for bus seat belts.
Also not pushing for it: the West Virginia Department of Education, which this week recommended to the state Board of Education bus policy changes that, still, wouldn’t require seat belts on all buses.
The state school board has approved posting the proposed new bus policy online for public comment. That means, until 4 p.m. Nov. 12, you can opine on the changes being recommended, but also suggest more changes yourself. The comment form can be found online at wvde.state.wv.us/policies.
The final vote on the changes will happen after Nov. 12.
Before voting to publish the proposals, no board members suggested or asked about seat belt requirements during their meeting Wednesday. Board member Debra Sullivan did, briefly, raise the issue last year.
Sullivan, in an interview this week, noted the safety currently provided by compartmentalization. That’s the term for school buses having cushioned, high-backed seats spaced close to one another.
As for not requiring seat belts atop the safety that compartmentalization provides, Sullivan suggested it would be very difficult to unbuckle little kids in the event of an accident.
“That concern plays a large part,” Sullivan said.
She suggested talking with Victor Gabriel, a state School Building Authority board member who the state Department of Education also paid to help develop the policy. But Gabriel said he didn’t weigh in on seat belts during the development, and he suggested speaking with an education department official about their non-inclusion.
Kristin Anderson, the education department’s communications executive director, venerated compartmentalization in an email.
She wrote that if a bus entered water or caught fire, “seat belts could prevent students from getting off and actually trap students.”
“School bus transportation is the safest way for students to get to and from school,” Anderson said. “There has not been a death on a school bus in West Virginia for more than 60 years.”
But a National Transportation Safety Board report notes that, among about 3,500 school bus crashes nationwide from 1985 to 2016, “crashes involving rollovers were far more likely to result in fatalities, with 124 deaths in 117 rollover crashes.”
“For maximum safety in all types of crashes, school bus passengers need additional protection beyond compartmentalization,” the report said.
In August 2018, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said it was “currently planning research on the use and implications of seat belts on school buses, which will help inform future Agency actions and activities.”
This week, an NHTSA spokesperson pointed to two studies NHTSA is now funding.
One is on whether seat belts improve student behavior and, thus, reduce driver distraction. The other — with an expected completion date of two years from now — is on their “indirect effects on safety.”
“NHTSA’s position on leaving it up to states to require seat belts in large school buses hasn’t changed,” the NHTSA spokesperson wrote in an email.