By law, children often get special treatment, as vulnerable folks should. Special laws reduce speed limits and ban cellphone use in school zones. Other laws produce tougher penalties for those whose bad driving affects children.
But when it comes to seat belts, whose presence and use in cars, trucks, vans and other vehicles is required by law for everyone and has saved an estimated 250,000 lives since 1975, children are left unprotected — at least on school buses.
A Texas school bus seat belt law was passed in 2007 requiring students to wear seat belts on school buses — provided seat belts were available on buses. What the law failed to do was support the requirement by providing funding for installing seat belts, which aren’t cheap.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says the cost of adding seat belts to a school bus could be as much as $10,296 per bus.
In 2009 the Texas legislature belatedly approved $10 million for this purpose. But according to the Houston Chronicle, a loophole in the law and school districts’ failure to apply meant only around $1 million was awarded to districts across the state.
Without proper state funding, school districts themselves must pay the bill to retrofit their buses with seat belts and buy new buses with seat belts. Most school districts lack the money to do so, just as they lack the money to make and install signs around each campus banning cellphone use in school zones (which makes Texas’ anti-cellphone law meaningless, since it doesn’t apply without proper signage).
Texas has around 35,000 school buses which transport about 1.5 million students each school day. A majority of Texas’ standard-size school buses, according to the Associated Press, lack seat belts.
An exception is Dallas County Schools, whose 2,000 school buses each have the equipment. Officials for San Antonio ISD also say a majority of their school buses are equipped with seat belts.
As for Houston ISD, the state’s largest school district, it’s equipping any new school bus it purchases with seat belts. But since doing so, just 63 buses in HISD’s fleet of 1,100 has three-point seat belts for students.
HISD’s gradual move to feature seat belts on its buses was spurred by a 2015 crash on South Loop 610 in which two students were killed. That bus had lap belts, which lack the shoulder restraints of three-point seat belts, but it’s not clear if all students were using them.
Nationally, school bus tragedies have included a Tennessee crash Nov. 21 which killed six elementary school students. That school bus, which reportedly was speeding, lacked seat belts of any kind.
The federal government and the National Safety Council recently called upon all schools to add seat belts on school buses. Yet just five states other than Texas have laws to require them — and as noted, such laws don’t mean all buses have them.
In part that may be because student deaths on school buses are so rare — the recent Tennessee tragedy notwithstanding.
The NHTSA said in 2014 that only about four students per year are killed while riding in school buses during school travel hours. The agency says adding three-point seat belts to all school buses could reduce child fatalities from four to two, out of many millions of students.
The NHTSA and the American School Bus Council point out that children are safer statistically — 70 times safer, in fact — while riding a school bus than going to school in a car, in a minivan, on a bicycle or on foot.
Besides that, some say that adding seat belts on school buses won’t necessarily make students safer in all crashes. In fact, they could be dangerous.
School officials around the country have pointed out that if a school bus is in a crash and rolls over onto its roof, students will be hanging upside down while restrained by seat belts. Another problem would be if a bus caught on fire or rolled into water, in which case seat belts might make it harder for students to escape quickly.
To be sure, buses are inherently dangerous for any passengers. Their large interiors provide much room for people or objects to be hurled around the bus after an impact and cause injuries. Buses also have a large amount of glass in their many windows which can be broken in a collision.
Most children who are injured or killed going to or from school suffer when getting on or off a bus. That’s among the reasons additional Texas school bus laws have placed restrictions on persons who drive near school buses, while providing high fines for violators.
Yet when it comes to child safety, everything counts, and seat belts on school buses could be a vital element.