NHTSA denied a petition filed by nearly dozen organizations and individuals that were seeking a federal rulemaking for the mandatory installation of three-point, lap/shoulder belts in all newly-manufactured large school buses. NHTSA said such a requirement could result in more student deaths.
NHTSA cited the inherent safety of school buses and the possible unintended consequences of installing the occupant restraints, namely increased vehicle costs and reduced ridership as a result of schools shrinking the sizes of their fleets, as reasons for denying petition, which was spearheaded by the Center for Auto Safety. Other notable petitioners included the American Academy of Pediatrics, Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, the American Association of Orthopaedic Surgeons, the Orthopaedic Trauma Association, and Safe Ride News.
NHTSA said fewer than 1 percent of school transportation-related fatalities occur in school buses compared to 12 percent walking and 79 percent in cars.
The gist of the petition expressed dissatisifaction with FVMSS 222, "School Bus Passenger Seating and Crash Protection," because it only required compartmentalization in large school buses rather than seat belts when first finalized in 1977. NHTSA updated the regulation in 2008 to require lap/shoulder belts in all newly purchased small school buses, but it stopped short of a requirement in large buses, instead only publishing engineering standards for the voluntary installation of the seat belts. The implementation date for the updated rule goes into effect in October.
The petitioners cited recent a crash in Florida in May 2008, in which all the student riders were wearing two-point lap belts. Only one serious injury resulted. Twelve years earlier, however, a school bus crash in Arizona resulted in multiple passenger ejections and "lifetime crippling injuries" suffered by another passenger because there were no seat belts available. The petition also pointed to a 1999 recommendation by the National Transportation Safety Board calling for seat belts in all school buses, which has since been closed by the agency.
But NHTSA said it estimates that an additional 10 to 19 student fatalities could occur each year if a seat belt requirement for large buses moved forward. NHTSA reasoned that the increased, incremental cost of school buses with seat belts, which it estimated to be $5,485 to $7,345 per bus, as well as other data available was not enough to make the conclusion "that there exists an unreasonable risk of death or injury in an accident that justified an FMVSS requirement for seat belts on large school buses."
NHTSA also estimates that lap/shoulder seat belts would save about two lives per year and would prevent 1,900 crash injuries, of which 97 percent are considered minor or moderate in severity, such as cuts and bruises. But, the agency added, that figure is only true under the assumption that every student rider wore a seat belt correctly on every trip.
“We’re not surprised at all by the NHTSA denial decision and find it to be consistent with our original comments," Bob Riley, executive director of NASDPTS, told School Transportation News. "We were the only association that actually was in favor of lap/shoulder belts in small buses as well as large buses. Our caveat was only if the feds funded it fully, and our rationale then was the exact same as in their much more detailed denial."
He added that NASDPTS wasn't privy at the time to all of the data cited by NHTSA in its denial of petition but spoke for the organization in saying he was pleased with the new analysis.
"The simple concept is that if you increase the cost by enough you’ll remove kids from buses, and the unintended consequence is going to be lots more kids riding in less safe means," he said.
NASDPTS President Mike Simmons later forwarded a statement that "NHTSA’s rationale, which is well-known to NASDPTS members, is consistent with the reasoning expressed in the preamble to NHTSA’s Final Rule in late 2008 on school bus passenger crash protection." Meanwhile, a representative of NSTA said there would be no immediate comment on the petition denial but that a future statement was probable. At this writing, a representative of the Center for Auto Safey said the organization was preparing a response to NHTSA's ruling.
NAPT issued the following statement to members:
"While the Agency’s petition denial provides useful data and analysis for consideration by states in making decisions, we continue to believe that NHTSA’s arguments made in today’s Notice would be stronger and more helpful to states if additional information about safety performance were included.
"Still missing are crash test results and detailed situational analysis of the unique school bus operating environment (such as emergency evacuations) that policy makers need to make a science-based evaluation of this question.
"NAPT has long been engaged in the debate over the question of whether lap/shoulder belts would further improve the safety of the children entrusted to us every school day. Indeed, we were the first to petition the agency with a request to settle this matter definitively.
"While we are pleased NHTSA has reiterated that school buses are the safest form of transportation in the U.S., we continue to believe NHTSA should provide the kind of information, analysis, and testing that school bus operators need to make a science-based decision whether to add this safety equipment to large school buses."
Editor's note: This story will be updated as new developments occur. Look for more on this topic in a coming issue of School Transportation News magazine.