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In 2007, a school bus transporting students to a technical school in Huntsville, Alabama, skidded off an interstate highway on-ramp and plunged 20 feet (6 m) to the pavement below. Four students were killed, and dozens more were injured. This tragic accident rekindled a national debate on whether or not seatbelts should be mandatory on school buses. The families of the deceased students have pursued legal action against the school system, the bus driver and one of the major manufacturers of buses worldwide. The short answers to why they are not mandated on school buses are safety issues, economics, and liability.
The US National Highway Transportation Administration (NHTSA), one of the most influential government agencies when it comes to public safety on roadways, has stated that current school buses are among the safest forms of transportation available. After studying the results of crashes involving these buses, the NHTSA stated that there was no compelling reason to believe the use of seatbelts should be federally mandated. Most accidents were either frontal or rear collisions, which means that passengers were protected by a safety feature called compartmentalization.
Compartmentalization, a concept seen frequently on commercial airplanes, involves seating passengers in rows of padded seats with cushioned backs. The belief is that during frontal or rear impact, the most common types of wrecks involving school buses, passengers would either be pushed back into their seats or thrown forward into the padded backs of the row ahead. The use of seatbelts might require stiffer seats, which would negate the theory of compartmentalization. It is also feared that some students would receive internal injuries from the belts through a process called submarining, the tendency for a body to slide downwards during impact.
Seatbelts could also hamper rescue or evacuation efforts, as adults or older students may have to spend precious minutes unbuckling young or disoriented passengers. Unruly students could also use the heavy buckles as makeshift weapons, creating even more of a safety hazard. There is also the argument that seatbelts would only protect passengers during unusual events, such as roll-overs or flips, not other possible accidents such as fires or submersion. Considering the expense of retrofitting current school buses or replacing entire fleets with approved seat belt systems, the benefits do not currently outweigh the liabilities.
One problem many school systems face with the prospect of mandatory seat belt use on school buses is compliance. The bus driver already has a significant amount of responsibility, so schools would have to hire additional monitors to ride on all the buses. In light of sexual misconduct concerns, both male and female monitors would have to be hired in order to avoid any allegations of impropriety. Besides the added expense of hiring qualified monitors, there would also be a question of liability if even one student removed his or her belt and became injured as a result.
Retrofitting current school buses can also be an expensive and controversial process for school systems. There are few guarantees that retrofitted belt systems would not fail under certain circumstances. There are also very few standards in place for seat belt systems installed by manufacturers of school buses. The handful of states which have instituted seat belt mandates for school buses have not reported many incidents in which their use was clearly an advantage over compartmentalization. While it may seem counter-intuitive to mandate seat belt use for automobiles but not for buses, there are some differences between the two modes of transportation that require different approaches to passenger safety.