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NHTSA Permits Installation of School Bus Barriers to Separate Drivers, Students

In an ongoing attempt to mitigate the exposure of COVID-19 on the school bus and protect school bus drivers and students, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) permitted the installation of both plexiglass barriers and clear plastic soft shields under certain conditions.

Despite previous prohibitions in some states, including Texas as STN has previously reported, these barriers can be used as long as they meet certain window glazing requirements and comply with applicable federal motor vehicle safety standards.

So said NHTSA in an Aug. 11 response to an email from Mike Collingwood, the vehicle inspection unit manager at the Illinois Department of Transportation, that sought clarification of plexiglass barriers installed to the right side of and behind the driver’s seating position. NHTSA also responded to a question regarding the installation of clear, plastic soft shields that would be installed to the right of and behind the driver, and/or installed throughout the passenger compartments by attachment to the interior roof and to the seatback of passenger seats.

Photo courtesy of the Original Soft Shield showing passenger dividers.

NHTSA stated that based on the description and photos provided by Collingwood, the barrier and transparent flexible material of the shield would be motor vehicle glazing and must comply with FMVSS 205.

FMVSS 205 applies to glazing materials, specifying performance requirements for various types of glazing, as well as specifying the locations in vehicles in which each item may be used. The glazing material, assembling and cutting must also be pursuant to “American National Standards Institute American National Standard for Safety Glazing Materials for Glazing Motor Vehicles and Motor Vehicle Equipment Operating on Land Highways-Safety Standard.”

Plexiglass Barriers

NHTSA stated that it considers plexiglass barriers installed in school buses as “interior partitions.”

Depending on where the partition is placed, NHTSA wrote that it may be considered a “requisite for driving visibility” and subjected to height requirements. Requisite for driving visibility for school buses includes windows to the immediate right or left of the driver and the front windshield. Any portion of glazing that the driver would have to see through to look out windows would also be considered requisite for driving visibility.

Based on the installation of the plexiglass barrier, as discussed by Collingwood, NHTSA said bus drivers would need to have unobstructed visibility to their right side as they look out the windows. The glazing must be one of the 10 items as defined by NHTSA. [Editor’s Note: See a list of all items in a drafted document.] The part of the barrier behind the driver area is not requisite for driving visibility and instead has additional compliance options for items allowed to be used.

Soft Shields

NHTSA said it considers soft shields as “flexible curtains.” The location of the glazing in the vehicle determines which types of glazing may be used. Based on where the soft shields would be installed, as indicated by Illinois DOT, NHTSA said the location to the right of the driver would be considered requisite for driving visibility.

The flexible curtains in buses in areas not requisite for driving visibility, which includes any location behind the driver and between the passenger compartments, must be one of 11 types of Items as defined by NHTSA.

NHTSA stated of these items, only three would be appropriate for the soft shield the agency reviewed. “Soft, pliable glazing may not be able to meet the requirements for certain items of glazing because they do not provide a level of rigidity that is necessary for meeting some of the requirements. However, Items 6, 7, and 13, have requirements that were designed specifically for flexible plastics,” NHTSA stated.

NHTSA also included additional requirements applying to the installation of a partition or curtain depending on the entity installing it. NHTSA said in both cases the glazing must ensure that installation of the partition does not:

  • Take the vehicle out of compliance with or make inoperative systems installed pursuant to FMVSS No. 222, “School bus passenger seating and crash protection.”
  • Impact the vehicle’s compliance with or make inoperative systems installed pursuant to FMVSS No. 302, “Flammability of interior materials.”
  • Prevent the driver and passengers from readily accessing emergency exits installed in compliance with or make inoperative systems installed pursuant to FMVSS No. 217, “Bus emergency exits and window retention and release.”
  • Obstruct the driver’s view of the mirrors and/or rearview image required under FMVSS No. 111, “Rear visibility.”
  • Impede the driver’s ability to see through the windows needed for driving visibility.

“Visibility is particularly important for school buses, as not only are school buses engaged in the transportation of children, they also make frequent stops,” NHTSA stated. “Installers should ensure that installation of a partition or curtain, particularly one situated in an area requisite for driving visibility, does not create glare or otherwise reduce the driver’s ability to see embarking and disembarking students and other road users.”


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The barriers must also comply with FMVSS 222 provisions for head protection. NHTSA stated that school buses are required to have passenger seating systems designed to afford impact protection to occupants. And therefore, because the partition may affect the design of compartmentalization, NHTSA recommended that students not sit in front row seats where a partition is erected in the head impact zone.

NHTSA clarified in its response that the recommendations are not intended for the effect of law and they are not meant to bind the public in any way. Instead, NHTSA said the purpose is for clarification to the public regarding existing requirements under the law. NHTSA is authorized by the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act to issue Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards that set the performance requirements for new motor vehicles and new items of motor vehicle equipment.

It also stated that the installation may be subject to state laws or regulations. The three national school transportation associations — the National Association of Pupil Transportation, National School Transportation Association, and the National Associations of State Directors of Pupil Transportation — will present a Student Transportation Aligned for Return to School Task Force webinar on the installation of barriers on Aug. 18 at noon Eastern time.

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