Once again, in the heat of August, NHTSA aimed an icy blast at efforts to require lap-shoulder belts on all school buses. A petition submitted by Safe Ride News Publications and others in January, 2010 (SRN January/February 2010), after a fatal school bus crash in Connecticut, was denied by NHTSA on August 25, 2011. The agency said, “We have not found a safety problem supporting a federal requirement for lap-shoulder belts on large school buses, which are already safe.”
In the meantime, the agency did complete one essential step in the direction of facilitating the voluntary equipping of school buses with three-point belts: new performance requirements in FMVSS 222 for school bus seating with integrated lap-shoulder belts became effective in October of this year. Since performance standards can only be set by NHTSA, this is a welcome advance. Without standardized testing, the movement toward universal three-point belts would have been slow or stymied. The amendment to FMVSS 222 also includes the requirement that new, small buses (under 10,000 pounds gross vehicle weight) now be equipped with lap-shoulder belts (not lap-only belts, as was formerly required). To see a summary of all the recent updates to FMVSS 222, look under “School Bus Safety” on this website.
There are signs that the school bus industry itself is warming to the idea of large buses having seat belts. An editorial in the October edition of School Transportation News (STN) magazine spotlighted the need to “get the word out” about new seat belt technology. Ryan Gray, the editor, focused on quashing the old argument that putting seat belts in school buses would necessarily reduce capacity. He pointed out that the technology that is available today (in particular, “flex seats” developed first by IMMI and now more widely offered) makes seating with lap-shoulder belts flexible so that it can be used for two large or three small occupants on a full-width bench seat. Bench seats that can be retrofitted with three-point belts are now available as well, and some have modular backs that can be switched out for ones with seat belts or built-in child restraints.
Although equipping large school buses with lap-shoulder belts is not federally mandated, a number of states, municipalities, and school districts have instituted their own requirements. Gray described a session at the STN EXPO in Reno last July, in which officials from three such school transportation systems described their experiences implementing lap-shoulder belts on their buses. They shared the view that (in Gray’s words) “occupant restraints … had little negative impact” on their operations and emphasized that the restraints had a “positive impact on student behavior.” Gray was dismayed to hear several attendees voice the now-debunked objection that lap-shoulder belts would reduce capacity on buses. They appeared not to be aware that flex seats are now widely available and that these systems would largely or entirely overcome their concerns.
Gray, who has had his finger on the pulse of the school transportation industry for some time, concluded “eventually, all school buses nationwide figure to have lap-shoulder belts, whether or not you and I live to see that come to fruition.” He pointed to the estimated 700 school districts nationwide that already use some sort of seat belt system on at least some of their vehicles.
NHTSA probably is content to sit back and let the industry move gradually toward accepting this outcome. After all, it was industry pressure that, back in the 1970s, removed the original proposal for seat belts on all school buses from the initial draft of FMVSS 222. We at Safe Ride News Publications would prefer a more proactive and faster response from the agency.