Stopping short of announcing imminent rulemaking to usher in a national requirement for lap-shoulder seat belts in school buses, NHTSA Administrator Mark Rosekind shared a new federal policy position that the occupant restraints should be available for all schoolchildren to and from school.
Rosekind spoke before a packed audience of NAPT and NASDPTS members during a joint session at the Marriott on Monday that the industry, collectively, needs to embrace a new way of thinking regarding seat belts, namely the three-point variety, that seeks answers to implementation challenges rather than reiterating arguments about why they are unnecessary on school buses.
“Let me be clear now seat belts save lives,” said the former NTSB Board member, adding that the federal position that school buses as they are current are the safest way students can get to and from school remains unchanged. “Every child on every school bus needs a three-point seat belt.”
He added that the issue should be "utterly non-controversial."
The announcement was similar to new views held by NASDPTS, which reversed its position on seat belts last year by recommending them for all school buses, as long as districts have the ability to absorb additional costs while not displacing student riders and forcing them to find another way to and from school.
On Oct. 25, NAPT released its latest statement on school bus seat belts, asking NHTSA “to explain clearly and unambiguously to local officials why optional equipment like seat belts should be selected over other available choices that might also improve school transportation safety.” The organization along with NSTA has also called for more scientific research into the efficacy of seat belts.
Rosekind responded, in part, that traffic data tells that story. Namely, he added, half of the 30,000 fatalities recorded each year occur at least in part because of non-use, while 70 percent of all teen fatalities in crashes are tied to not buckling up.
Rosekind laid out a three-step approach that includes in-depth research into this matter and enlisting the help of safety advocates, including those at states that already have school bus seat belt laws. He said he wants governors in California and Texas, where there are laws for three-point seat belts on school buses, and in Florida, Louisiana, New Jersey and New York, where there are laws on two-point lap belts, to appoint representatives to share information on cost challenges that need to be overcome as well as if they think there should be federal rulemaking.
"To be clear, I'm not announcing rule making today," he told the gathering, adding that mandates aren't only tools available. "(But) how can we not want every child who rides a school bus to have the total safety afforded by three-point belts?"
NHTSA is also working with other federal agencies to identify potential funds for states and local school districts. There were no specifics as to where these funds might come from, whether that be as a result of congressional action or Section 402 Highway Safety Grants available from the various U.S. Department of Transportation agencies. For example, does he envision a program similar to NHTSA's "Click It or Ticket" or federal and local campaigns targeting drunk driving?
Previously, NHTSA’s position dating has been that the decision to install any seat belt system on large buses is best left to the state or local school district because of cost and operational considerations. Additionally, it has held the view that adding lap-shoulder belts to the entire national fleet might only save a couple of more student lives a year.
Rosekind admitted that NHTSA has not always spoken clearly on the subject, but that seat belts are a safety icon and necessary on school buses to improve parents trust in districts’ abilities to get children safely to and from school. He also said this change in mindset will be a challenge, but that it can be positively influenced by focusing on what is possible rather than what is not.
Regarding the new federal position, NAPT Board Member Peter Mannella told Rosekind and the assembly that the organization will work with NHTSA while recognizing the “array of things to work on” and the obstacles remaining tied to “different perspectives” on the issue.
Rosekind also made a point to discuss school bus safety extending beyond the inside of the bus, as more students are killed at the bus stop, as well as walking or biking to school and, of course, as passengers in motor vehicles than as school bus passengers.
As a result, he added that NHTSA will improve its crash reporting data on school buses to focus on speed and distraction, as well as illegal passers. Rosekind pointed to an agency study of video cameras as deterrent to illegal passers to go along with increased public education of local school bus stop laws.
He also said NHTSA will update its online School Bus Safety page early next year.