The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) issued a”White Paper” in October of 2009 to explore the proposition that the lack of seat belts on school buses increases the likelihood that elementary school children, specifically children 5 to 10 years old, will not use seat belts in personal vehicles. The paper found limited evidence of a carryover effect of no seat belts on school buses to seat belt use in personal vehicles. Parents and mandatory seat belt laws seem to play the most significant role on children’s seat belt use in personal vehicles.
Previously, in 1986, NHTSA funded a study investigated the carryover effects of seat belts on school buses. The study found that whether seat belts were on school buses had little effect on students use of seat belts in personal vehicles. While this study was conducted over 20 years ago, the lack of carryover effects was expected to, and did, still apply today. In the years since the study was published, much has changed in terms of policies and laws related to occupant safety, especially for passenger vehicles. Most States now require the use of seat belts for drivers and front seat passengers.
All States require that children be secured in some form of child passenger protection device for very young children (i.e., child safety seats or booster seats) or by seat belts. (New York just recently enacted a law raising to 8 the age that children must be put in a booster seat.) In contrast, fewer changes have been made to implement occupant protection measures, such as seat belts, for other means of transportation such as school buses, city buses, and trains. New York State law requires that large school buses manufactured after July 1, 1987, be equipped with seat belts, and that schools make them accessible to each vehicle occupant.
Every school bus driver is required to wear a seat belt, and children under the age of four must ride in properly installed federally-certified child safety seats. Each school district sets its own policy for seat belt use by the other passengers. School buses are one of the safest forms of transportation in the United States, according to the NHTSA. Every year approximately 474,000 public school buses, transporting 25.1 million children to and from school and school-related activities, travel an estimated 4.8 billion route miles. Over the 11 years ending in 2007, there was an annual average of 5 school-age children (younger than 19) killed on school busesinvolved in school-transportation-related fatalities.
On average, there were 8 fatal crashes per year in which an occupant died in a school-bus-related crash. In 2007 there was only 1 school-age child killed on a school bus involved in a school-transportation-related crash. School buses are designed with a passive restraint system known as compartmentalization in which closely spaced, well-padded seats with high seat backs help to keep children safe without the use of seat belts.
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