In response to the announcement last year by National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) Administrator Mark Rosekind that champions thee-point seat belts in all school buses, the National School Transportation Association (NSTA) once again partnered with the National Association for Pupil Transportation (NAPT) to address these statements and express joint concern.
During the NAPT Summit in Richmond, Virginia, this past November, the NHTSA administrator focused on the need for three-point seat belts on large school buses, asserting that further investigation into the issue was essential. NSTA and NAPT replied to Rosekind’s call for additional safety measures with a joint letter that seeks an opportunity to meet with him to discuss the matter further.
The letter, dated Dec. 21, 2015, details how requiring three-point seat belts on large buses could affect not only how children ride the school bus, especially in terms of their continued safety, but could also impact the industry economically in terms of added costs as well as operations, district budgets and established regulatory procedures.
“We are not opposed to seat belts, but for us this issue is about two things, decisions that are supported by science and data and ensuring that as many children as possible have access to the safest environment in which to travel to and from school,” NSTA stated.
The NSTA/NAPT collaboration clarified how Rosekind’s proclamation for a potential edict on three-point seat belts could force school districts around the country to cherry-pick between buying school buses fitted with the restraints or cutting services due to resulting budgetary shortfalls.
“If a school district has to choose…they are forced to make financial decisions that may include cutting service or having an insufficient number of buses to meet their needs, then safety is no longer the first priority,” the letter stated.
While NAPT and NSTA conceded that federal funds could meet the budget deficits for purchasing buses with three-point restraints, both organizations said they believe the prime issue is child safety, especially in regards whether or not the restraints would be worn correctly, impede passenger evacuation in fire or water emergencies or prevent escape in cases of rollovers that incapacitate the driver.
The letter also zeroed in on a 2011 Petition Denial from NHTSA that concluded “the unintended effect of requiring seat belts on large school buses could endanger more children (10 to 19) than it would potentially benefit (2).”
NAPT and NSTA focused additional attention on how a seat belt requirement could bear on the student transportation industry economically. On top of costs for seat belt assembly and installation, a number of other issues were pointed out, such as driver and passenger training to guarantee proper use and potentially longer route times due to ensuring compliance. The letter strongly urged NHTSA to also avoid considering retrofitting any buses in the aging fleets around the country.
The letter wrapped up with the hope that NAPT and NSTA could reach an accord with NHTSA, asking that they be involved in any discussions concerning the matter as it moves forward, as both groups have been included on a variety of committees that deal with safety and transportation.
“We understand January 27, 2016, is the date set for the meeting of those invitees, and we request to be included in this meeting and all subsequent meetings on this issue,” the letter stated.
Meanwhile, the National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services has largely applauded NHTSA's new stance.