Students board school buses on the first day of classes in San Antonio, Texas. Eric Gay/AP

School buses were designed to be the safest mode of transport for kids, but at least 18 states are considering mandatory seat belt laws.

When a school bus in Chattanooga, Tennessee, slammed into a tree in November and killed six elementary school students, a decades-old debate resurfaced: Why don’t school buses have seat belts, and would seat belts actually make buses safer?

“Every time there is a crash with a school bus, it seems to be the most obvious thing to do,” says Richard Williams, former director of regulatory studies at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University.

Federal law only requires seat belts in school buses that weigh less than 10,000 pounds, and historically, regulators have opposed such federal mandates on coach buses. But at least 18 states, including Maryland, Michigan, New Hampshire, and Virginia, are currently considering such legislation. Washington is the latest to join the club after the state senate transportation committee held a public hearing Tuesday on a bill that would require all newly purchased public and private school buses to be equipped with seat belts. So far, only six states—California, Florida, Louisiana, New Jersey, New York, and Texas—have a variant of such a law.

The question comes up often: If cars and trucks have seat belts, why not the buses carrying some tens of millions of kids each day?

In 2008, then Alabama’s governor Bob Riley kicked off a three-year pilot project to determine the impact of seat belts on school buses. (Jamie Martin/AP)

Federal agencies like the National Highway Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) have long maintained that even without seat belts, school buses are the safest mode of transportation for children. Between 2005 and 2014, NHTSA reported 1,191 crashes involving school buses or other vehicles functioning as school buses. That makes up less than 1 percent of the 331,730 fatal collisions in those 10 years. Among the 133 people who die each year on average in related crashes, only 11 are bus passengers or drivers.

This is, in part, because of how buses were designed. Prior to 1977, school buses were little more than “sheet metal bolted to big steel chassis, with four wheels and a diesel motor,” as Indianapolis Monthly described it, and “subjecting a child to a traffic accident  … was like placing an egg in a toolbox full of wrenches and gasoline, then throwing it down a flight of stairs and hoping it came out unbroken.”

When these buses failed crash tests administered by UCLA researchers, NHTSA stepped in with new safety standards. Joints were better reinforced to prevent buses from tearing apart, a“fuel system integrity” made them less vulnerable to fires, and roofs were strengthened to prevent collapse during a rollover.

Most significantly, the NHTSA introduced “compartmentalization,” a design concept that essentially minimized the impact of a collision by packing kids like eggs in a carton. Bus seats were placed closer together. Instead of resembling park benches, they’re now made with an energy-absorbing steel inner structure and given extra padding. For added security, seats are bolted to the floor and seat-backs are raised.

Advocates of seat belt mandates, though, say the design itself isn’t enough to protect kids. "We shouldn't be having tragedies where kids are killed because they don't have the option of putting on a seat belt," Republican Sen. Michael Baumgartner said at Tuesday’s public hearing in Washington.

Even the NHTSA reversed its longstanding stance in November, when administrator Mark Rosekind publicly voiced his support for three-point seat belts (the kind you’d find in a car). "The position of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is that seat belts save lives,” he said during a speech to the National Association for Pupil Transportation. “That is true whether in a passenger car or in a big yellow bus.”

NHTSA estimates that nationally, seat belts can save about two students’ lives each year. And one of the largest studies, by the University Transportation Center for Alabama, found that seat belts can provide some safety benefits, especially in preventing deaths during rollovers and side-impact crashes. When they crunched years’ worth of crash data in Alabama, they estimated that statewide, seat belts could reduce fatalities by 39 percent and injuries by 13 percent.

That, however, translates to 0.13 deaths and roughly eight injuries prevented each year. “At this rate, it would take many years to save a single life in Alabama on average,” the researchers wrote in their report. Given the cost—between $7,000 and $11,000 per bus, by one estimate—they concluded that states would be better off investing in other, lower cost safety measures.

Indeed, cost is often a major barrier to this sort of legislation. Texas, for example, mandated in 2007 that all school buses bought after September 2010 must have seat belts. The Kileen Daily Herald reports, however, that most buses in use still lack that feature. While $10 million had been approved in 2009 for this purpose, that was reduced by $7.5 million during a budget crisis in 2011. Much of the remaining funds went toward other programs, leaving just $415,00 across the state for school bus seat belts.

There are also potential tradeoffs, says Adam Millsap, a research fellow who studies state and local policy at the Mercatus Center. Buses are designed to sit three small children to a seat, but adding seat belts would lower that capacity. “A very small school district, instead of needing three buses, they might need four,” he says. If a school lacks the resource to buy that extra bus, it could mean more children walking to school or riding with a friend. “So we could actually see an increase in fatalities for younger children.”

Which brings up another point. “One of the biggest dangers is children walking to school,” Williams says. In 2002, NHTSA found that three-quarters of all fatalities related to school buses were pedestrian children. “So instead of putting seat belts on school buses, perhaps you’d want to put your hard-earned local dollars into [hiring] school crossing guards."

Perhaps, he adds, the solution doesn’t start with modifying the seats, but with the way school districts vet and train the drivers. School bus drivers have been charged with reckless driving, driving while texting, and in the case of the crash in Tennessee, with vehicular homicide after driving well above the 30-mile-per-hour speed limit down a winding road.

That’s not to say states should automatically reject seat belts. Williams advocates for each state to conduct their own cost-benefit analyses. “But just to say seat belts save lives, and that that trumps everything,” he says, “to me, that's irresponsible.”

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