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Very few states require school buses to have seat belts

Federal officials have long urged states to implement seat belt requirements on school buses, but only nine states have done so.
Very few states require school buses to have seat belts
Posted at 6:49 AM, Aug 23, 2023

On the first day of school for a district in Clark County, Ohio, one girl died on board a school bus Tuesday after it flipped after coming into contact with an oncoming Honda Odyssey minivan. 

Ohio is among the states that don't require new school buses to have seat belts on board. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, it is one of 41 states that do not require seat belts. 

These are the only nine states that have such a requirement:

- Arkansas

- California

- Florida

- Iowa

- Louisiana

- Nevada

- New Jersey

- New York

- Texas

Federal officials have also called on Florida, New Jersey and New York to upgrade seat belts to include shoulder restraints. 

Forty-one states lack a requirement despite multiple federal recommendations that seat belts be installed. The National Transportation Safety Board has issued recommendations periodically over the years. The NTSB says these 41 states should "enact legislation to require that all new large school buses be equipped with passenger lap/shoulder belts for all passenger seating positions." 

Last year following a deadly school bus accident in Decatur, Tennessee, the NTSB reissued its recommendation that school buses have seat belts. 

“This case is a gut-wrenching reminder that failure to act on our recommendations can lead to unimaginable — and preventable — tragedy,” said NTSB Chair Jennifer Homendy. “School buses are often praised for their safety record, but we’ve become complacent. Children’s lives are at stake. The time to act is now.”

SEE MORE: Seventh grader stops school bus after driver faints at the wheel

Following Homendy's recommendation, the Ohio Parent Teacher Association urged local districts to install seat belts in school buses. The Ohio PTA noted that three districts among hundreds in the state voluntarily installed seat belts on new school buses. 

"The Ohio PTA reaffirms the National PTA’s 1998 resolution in support of legislation requiring seat belts in new school buses and encourages Ohio School Districts to voluntarily pursue, within budgetary constraints, pilot programs of installing lap-shoulder seat belts when ordering new school buses to determine if the presence of lap-shoulder seat belts meets the safety and behavioral improvement needs of their school district for transportation of students," the Ohio PTA said.

While details of Tuesday's crash remain under investigation, Sgt. Tyler Ross of the Ohio Highway Patrol told WHIO-TV that the driver of the Honda Odyssey went left of center, and even despite the bus driver going onto the shoulder, the minivan made contact with the bus. 

Out of 52 children on the bus, one child died, and 23 were transported to local hospitals. One of those students had serious injuries. 

How dangerous are school buses?

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, from 2006 to 2015, the U.S. averaged six student fatalities on board school buses per year. 

While there are recommendations by the NTSB to install seat belts on school buses, the design of school buses makes it less likely that a passenger would need a seat belt compared to a standard passenger car. The NTSB said school buses use a design known as "compartmentalization" that helps keep students from being ejected. 

Compartmentalization "requires no action by the passenger and functions by forming a compartment around the bus occupant," the NTSB said. "The closely spaced, energy-absorbing high-backed seats deform in a crash and allow passengers to 'ride down' the collision. Compartmentalization is designed to contain passengers within their seating compartments during frontal and rear impact collisions. A key aspect of this occupant protection system is that passengers remain within the compartment prior to, and during, an impact, so that they benefit from the energy-absorbing design of the seats."

Ohio State Rep. John Barnes Jr. introduced legislation in 2018 that would have required seat belts on school buses by the 2019-20 school year. That bill, however, did not get out of committee. 

"The NHTSA claims that compartmentalization, which relies on closely-spaced seats that have energy-absorbing seat backs, is the best way to provide crash protection to passengers of school buses," Barnes said. "However, this does not work in side impacts or rollovers and it is only effective when children are seated facing forward with their feet on the floor at all times."


The National Conference of State Legislatures said Alabama had a pilot program in which it installed seat belts on school buses. The state allocated $1.4 million, and 12 buses with seat belts were purchased for 10 local school districts.

"The results of the program, published in a study in October 2010, concluded that seat belts would make school buses safer, but also found that the costs of implementing a program would be greater than the benefits," the National Conference of State Legislatures said.

Lawmakers in the state of Connecticut estimated in 2016 that installing seat belts on school buses would cost between $7,346 and $10,296 per bus, and would reduce the number of students a bus can carry. 

@scrippsnews Seat belts are only required on school buses in 9 states. Every year, six kids on average are killed in school bus crashes, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Do you think school buses should be required to have seat belts? #BackToSchool #SchoolSafety ♬ original sound - Scripps News

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