New research published by National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) concludes what many student transporters with seatbelt experience already know: Besides protecting students in crashes, occupant restraint systems could result in an additional benefit of improved onboard student behavior and reduced distractions for the bus drivers.
In fact, drivers of large school buses told researchers that seatbelts are more apt to decrease the number of student behavior writeups than to increase safety in a crash or other incident. But calmer student environments on the bus are directly correlated to consistent policies on seatbelt usage, according to the report released on Monday.
School buses that see the most dramatic improvement in student behavior transport younger passengers, as they are most likely to use the seatbelts. Student transporters who use seatbelts reported in the interviews and surveys conducted by Toxcel, LLC and the Institute for Transportation Research and Education at North Carolina State University that the best results are due to bus drivers and supervisors investing the most time and effort into maintaining and enforcing a consistent seatbelt policy. The research concluded that training and education of drivers and enforcement of student passenger usage requirements are the most important factors in successful policy implementation.
“Importantly, many drivers commented that school administrators can support compliance by following through with consequences when students were referred for incompliance and suggested measures such as a signed student-parent policy agreement would also increase compliance,” the report states.
Still, NHTSA added that it continues to advise states and school districts to carefully consider the impacts adding seatbelts could have on overall student transportation safety, citing the existing safety record and the small added benefit “to other potential safety measures such as improvements in the safety of child pedestrians as they enter or exit the bus.
“Seat belts on large school buses could provide an overall safety benefit if their installation does not result in trade-offs with other child safety initiatives and if the added costs do not result in a reduction in the availability of buses,” NHTSA added, concluding that more data is necessary to assess the overall effectiveness of school bus seatbelts.
What the Latest Research Indicates
After whittling down an initial list of 384 industry professionals who expressed interest in participating, the team of NHTSA researchers — which included Derek Graham, a former president of the National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services and a retired state director with the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction — interviewed representatives from 26 school districts across 12 states.
The researchers then conducted a web-based interview of 215 school bus drivers who have seatbelts on their vehicles. The drivers work for 50 school districts located in Arkansas, California, Delaware, Florida, Illinois, Indiana, Minnesota, New Jersey, North Carolina, North Dakota, New York, and Texas. NHTSA noted, however, that seven out of 10 drivers are in either Indiana or New Jersey.
Editor’s note – Of the participating states, California, New Jersey and Texas currently have laws requiring three-point lap/shoulder belts on new school buses and for students to use them. Florida and New York require two-point lap belts on school buses, but only Florida requires students to use them. Arkansas requires students to buckle up if the school bus has seatbelts.
The drivers transport a cross-section of students. Nearly 88 percent of the drivers reported that they transport elementary school-aged children, while nearly 79 percent of the drivers said they also transport students in middle school or junior high. About 77 percent said their routes include high school or pre-college students, and 7 percent said they transport “other” students, which could account for preschool-aged students who attend public school or Head Start programs.
Six out of 10 drivers said seatbelts improved some or a lot of student behavior while 35 percent said behavior remained the same, with 5 percent indicating behavior became somewhat or much worse. The most often cited problem related to the addition of seatbelts was students having trouble with buckling up (42 percent), followed by backpacks or other objects getting tangled in seatbelts (33 percent).
Thirty-one percent of the drivers stated that they have observed students hitting each other with seatbelts. But such instances were nearly 5 times more likely with two-point lap belts. An additional 23 percent of drivers noted students experiencing challenges when unbuckling, and 11 percent of drivers reported no new safety problems or no changes in student behavior.
Interestingly, the results were nearly split evenly when drivers were asked if seatbelts increased student safety during a crash, hard braking, or sharp-turn incident. But 71 percent of drivers said that the seatbelts decreased the number of students standing or leaving their seats while the bus is moving.
Meanwhile, school bus drivers were evenly split between being less stressed and experiencing no change while transporting students in buses with seatbelts. The 15 percent who indicated increases in stress attributed that to monitoring the students and constantly reminding them to wear their seatbelts.
Similarly, 37 percent of drivers said their ability to concentrate on driving tasks increased somewhat or greatly, while 52 percent cited no change, and 11 percent indicated concentration decreased somewhat or greatly. Nearly seven out of 10 drivers said there was no change in their concentration during student loading and unloading, while nearly a quarter said concentration increased, and 8 percent said concentration decreased.
The average driving experience of survey respondents was 14 years, with 77 percent indicating they previously drove non-seatbelt school buses. Seventy-two percent of these drivers have lap-shoulder seatbelts on their buses, with 76 percent of those saying they’ve driven these buses for longer than six months. Meanwhile, 28 percent drive buses with two-point lap belts.
When performing linear regression analysis, the researchers estimated that the change in reported distraction was a function of reported seatbelt usage (some, none or most), the grade level of students, whether the bus run was performed in the morning or afternoon, and all two-way interactions between drivers and students.
“Survey respondents indicated that distraction was significantly better, i.e., there was a greater decrease in driver distraction, when they also reported that most students wore their seatbelts compared to when they reported that some or none wore their seatbelts,” according to the study.
Nearly 30 percent of the drivers said methods for encouraging students to use seatbelts are necessary, including getting parents more involved and enforcing stricter consequences for non-compliance. Another 16 percent indicated drivers need help monitoring usage, with half of those recommending monitors be added to the buses. Fifteen percent commented on seatbelt design, such as suggesting that only retractable three-point belts be used.
The most commonly cited negative of seatbelts was the inability of the driver to get all students unbuckled in an emergency. But the researchers noted that only 13.5 percent of all drivers responding reported negative aspects of the occupant restraints.
The researchers noted that their investigation was limited for several reasons. First, it relied on anecdotal driver recollections of seatbelt usage and the effects on driver distraction. Follow-up opportunities exist to collect base rates of student misbehaviors associated with seatbelt introduction to better define benefits.
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“There are opportunities to further evaluate the relationship between policy components, such as enforcement and training, with actual outcomes, such as compliance and distraction levels,” they write.
They also noted potential skewed responses based on the majority of drivers working in Indiana and New Jersey as well as 76 percent of drivers indicating they had driven a school bus with seatbelts for six months or longer, which the researchers said is high because most school buses don’t have seatbelts. “Therefore, the information could be considerably skewed to one point of view and experience,” the report finds.
Another limitation cited was the ambiguity of which training methods are the most effective. “Assessing the effectiveness of on-bus training versus written educational material, for example, could help districts better understand how to best apply limited resources,” the report reads. “The role of parents and guardians in helping ensure compliance can also be clarified to better equip districts and schools to communicate with this group.”