Seat Belts in School Buses

I reacted the same way many of you did when I heard from my son about the Bellevue High School football team bus rolling over – I was horrified. We followed the news all afternoon via phone from the Tacoma dome where he was waiting to photograph the game. (Check out his pictures at I don’t do many commercial plugs in my newsletters or blogs, but hey, it’s my kid!) The players all had their pads on and thankfully nobody was seriously hurt except for superfan Gary, who’s still recovering. Two coaches were thrown from the bus.

How come school buses are not required to have seatbelts, like cars are? I’ve had this question from many people, particularly from parents. I asked our transportation staff to see what had been done in the past and how I would go about fixing this. It seems so obvious to do. They immediately came back with a ton of research showing that it’s not quite the obvious policy issue you would have thought. (The speed of the response means lots of people have asked this question in the past.) I’m still mulling it over, but there a lot of reasons why this might not be as much of a good idea as you would have thought on first blush.

New York, New Jersey, California and Florida require belts to be installed now. Texas will after the 2010-11 school year. Only New Jersey requires that they actually be used.

The top reasons for not doing it are:

  • You can’t install 3-point belts without a huge engineering change in the design of the buses. Lap belts have problems with kids folding over and whacking themselves on the seatbacks in front with their heads.
  • The buses are pretty safe, almost certainly safer than allowing the kids to drive to the game in private cars with seatbelts. In the late sixties there were some federal design changes that created a “safety box” between the seats that works well as long as they have 28″ backs.
  • Buses are big, heavy things and tend not to get pushed around too much in accidents, particularly when hit by relatively smaller cars. This isn’t persuasive when you look at the pictures of the overturned bus on the side of I-5 from the Bellevue accident.
  • The drivers have no way to enforce usage. This seems like the real problem, and the practical observations that kids whack each other with the buckles, causing more injuries than accidents do.
  • Districts complain that on some routes they have more kids in a seat than there are belts. I find this argument particularly unpersuasive.

Advocates propose several rebuttals to the safety arguments and cost effectiveness concerns. They claim that most of the arguments against using the belts are cost driven, not safety focused. In my short review of the arguments I do find this persuasive.

There are many commercial agendas circulating in this policy arena. I intend to spend some time researching the issue over the next couple of weeks and decide if I’m going to push a seatbelt bill. School bus funding is another broken funding system where the state tries to get out of what I would call its basic ed requirements for funding, but that’s another story.

Author: Ross

I am the Director of the Department of Early Learning for Washington State. I formerly represented the 48th Legislative District in the State House of Representatives, chairing the Appropriations committee and spent many a year at Microsoft.