Babies as young as 6 weeks old ride on school buses to attend Early Head Start and teen parent programs. Children this young must ride rear facing, and are safest riding this way as long as they fit the size limits of their RF child safety restraint systems (CSRS).
In August, the governor of New Jersey signed a law that will require new school buses of any size in that state to be equipped with lap-shoulder belts in all seating positions. The law goes into effect 180 days after enactment, giving transportation departments in that state time to adjust to the new requirements.
On November 8, Safe Ride News was in attendance when NHTSA Administrator Mark Rosekind* addressed school bus industry leaders at the National Association for Pupil Transportation Annual Summit. Administrator Rosekind, while reinforcing the fact that today’s school buses are the safest way to transport kids to school, voiced the agency’s strong support for the eventual goal of equipping all new school buses with lap-shoulder belts.
As technician candidates, we learn that children on large school buses are protected by compartmentalization, but when the bus is small, seat belts are required to protect occupants properly. We’re also taught that the cutoff between small and large buses is a 10,000-pound gross vehicle weight rating (GVWR).
On July 23, NHTSA convened an eight-hour meeting to discuss the “current state of knowledge” regarding three-point belt systems (aka lap-shoulder belts) on school buses. The meeting’s purpose was to identify operational and policy challenges and solutions regarding the use of lap-shoulder belts on buses and to explore innovative funding approaches that could “serve as a catalyst for change.”
A motorcoach is a large, non-school bus that does not serve fixed routes (like city transit), but instead travels longer distances, usually on highways. While motorcoaches have a relatively good safety record compared to most other vehicle types, they do not have many of the safety features required of school buses. Nonetheless, groups of children frequently use these types of buses for field trips and sports outings, especially when the trip covers long distances.
At the Transporting Students with Disabilities and Preschoolers (TSD) Conference in March, Charley Kennington, of Innovative Transportation Solutions, and Kathy Furneaux, of the Pupil Transportation Safety Institute, discussed an important aspect of transporting groups of children: having a plan for how to get all students off the vehicle quickly in an emergency. When a school bus carries children who ride restrained in five-point harnesses, you can readily see how important it is to practice and prepare for emergency evacuation. In fact, knowing how a child would be evacuated in an emergency should be considered as important as learning how the CSRS is installed.
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.”
When considering school bus occupants, very young children like preschoolers, toddlers and infants don’t typically come to mind. However, Nancy Netherland, Program and Design Management Specialist for Migrant Seasonal Head Start Training and Technical Assistance (MSHS TTA) reports that, of the approximately 35,000-37,000 children enrolled each year in the Migrant and Seasonal Head Start Program, more than half are under 3 years old, and some are as young as six weeks. Since approximately 67 percent of these young children are transported on school buses, this means that this program alone regularly transports more than 12,000 children each year who are 2 or younger.
In October 2008, NHTSA published the “Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards; Seating Systems, Occupant Crash Protection, Seat Belt Assembly Anchorages, School Bus Passenger Seating and Crash Protection” final rule, the last components of which will take effect on October 21, 2011. Important among these is the requirement for new buses of 10,000 pounds gross vehicle weight or less to be equipped with lap-shoulder belts, rather than lap-only belts, in all positions.
Having access to lockable, standardized lap-shoulder seat belts on these smaller buses may make installation of conventional CRs easy on most buses so equipped. However, caregivers and advocates are often surprised to learn that best practice is to NOT use a booster on a school bus, even when a lap-shoulder belt is available and the child would normally ride in a booster in the family vehicle.