The Final Word on Seat Belts?

Submitted by New Jersey Bus Accident Lawyer, Jeffrey Hark

New Jersey School Bus Accidents

For months, the school bus industry has been abuzz about what the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration would do about three-point seat belts in school buses, and the verdict may soon be in as NHTSA Administrator Mark Rosekind takes the stage on Sunday at the 2015 NAPT Summit as a keynote speaker. Rosekind is expected to reveal the next course of action in this debate.

Some say the seat belts are as good as installed nationwide, with myriad options available for each bus make and model. Others say that school buses are already the safest vehicles on the road and seat belt restraints are redundant, or at the very least more research is necessary, and that the decision to install them or not is best left to individual states and districts.

Ironically, the evidence, which depending on the most desired outcome one favors, supports whatever road NHTSA might take.

Of course, in 2008 NHTSA ruled that three-point lap/shoulder belts are mandatory for Type A school buses that weigh less than 10,000 pounds GVWR because these vehicles most resemble passenger vehicles. Larger school buses, however, have the weight and construction to more thoroughly displace crash forces and, along with compartmentalization, are the safest vehicle for students to ride to and from school.

Because only one to two additional lives might be saved each year, NHTSA reasoned, installing three-point seat belts on large buses should remain a state or local school district decision.

More recently, NHTSA also ruled on this topic for another industry: Motorcoach. While motorcoach safety is viewed through a different lens than school bus safety, there are some similariities to draw a conclusion, namely on whether buses should be retrofitted with three-point belts.

The agency announced that starting next November all new over-the-road buses are required to be installed with three-point seat belt restraints. Additionally, this past month saw the release of a NHTSA report titled, “Retrofit Assessment for Existing Motorcoaches,” that upheld the two-year-old decision to not require installation of occupant restraints in motorcoaches currently in operation.

The report concluded that retrofitting would present an unnecessary financial burden to small operators. Estimates placed the cost of three-point seat belt restraint installation between $14,650 and $40,000 per older-model motorcoach, which renders the regulation impractical.

The report also noted that since motorcoach passenger usage of seat belts is low, any new safety benefits would be negligible, data that mirrors previous NHTSA estimates for three-point seat belt installation in school buses.


NHTSA Administrator Mark Rosekind

Yet, much of the upcoming school bus pronouncement hinges on the stance of NHTSA Administrator Mark Rosekind, who has been in the position for just under a year. Before being tapped for his current role by President Obama and confirmed by the U.S. Senate, Rosekind was a member of the National Transportation Safety Board, which is a proponent of lap/shoulder belts on school buses as well as motorcoaches.

During his tenure with the NTSB, Rosekind was the on-scene board member for seven major transportation accidents, as well as participating in a number of public events that discussed an array of safety topics. Rosekind served the NTSB from 2010 to 2014.

In 2012, a school bus carrying 25 school kids collided with a Mack roll-off truck in New Jersey that killed one student and injured a dozen more. While the NTSB listed a number of discrepancies that furthered the severity of the accident, one was insight to seatbelt use, the agency concluding that, “Contributing to the severity of passenger injuries was the nonuse or misuse of school bus passenger lap belts.”

As a result, one recommendation from NTSB was that student transportation organizations “develop guidelines…to assist schools in training bus drivers, students and parents on the importance and proper use of school bus seat belts, including manual lap belts, adjustable lap and shoulder belts, and flexible seating systems.”

NTSB advised these pupil transport-related associations to “provide your members with educational materials on lap and shoulder belts providing the highest level of protection for school bus passengers, and advise states or school districts to consider this added safety benefit when purchasing seat belt-equipped school buses.”

Of course, it needs to be pointed out that these recommendations only applied to states that already required seat belts aboard buses, which in addition to New Jersey included other lap-belt states Florida, Louisiana and New York, and three-point belt states California and Texas.

On Feb. 15, Rosekind was interviewed for an ABC Nightline segment titled, “Crash Course.” The story looked into school bus safety, and the interview with Rosekind centered on seat belt regulation. When pressed on the issue, Rosekind admitted, “We know seat belts save lives.”

At the time the segment ran, Rosekind had only been NHTSA administrator for a few weeks, and he promised that he would review current regulations with a fresh set of eyes, declaring that everything regarding seat belts was on the table for reexamination.

While he didn’t expressly state that NHTSA was going to reverse its stance on restraints on school buses, Rosekind disclosed, “We might change things.”

“Our job is to help save lives and prevent injuries…again, it’s not just about the word. It’s action. We’re going to look at every action we can take to help those kids be safe,” said Rosekind during the interview.

Then, over the summer, he called a special meeting in Washington, D.C., to take a longer look at school bus three-point seat belts, in particular, hearing from school districts that have real-world experience with the safety systems. That set the stage for an announcement this fall.

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Jeffrey Hark is a New Jersey Civil and Criminal Lawyer.

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