In recent years, a significant increase in the number of infants, toddlers and pre-school-aged children are being transported in school buses. Since current school bus designs and federal safety regulations were formulated based on child passengers in grades K through 12, infants, toddlers and pre-school-aged children may be more vulnerable in a crash or sudden driving maneuver. Nevertheless, for many of these children, the school bus is the primary vehicle that provides access to the programs and services.
As debate continues over the safety advantages and disadvantages of installing seat belts in school buses for children of all ages, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has issued findings for transporting pre-school age children dating as far back as 1999. Here are some findings from that report which may be seen in its entirety at http://www.nhtsa.dot.gov/people/injury/buses/Guide1999/prekfinal.htm.
When pre-school age children are transported in a school bus, NHTSA recommends these guidelines be followed:
(1) Each child should be transported in a Child Safety Restraint System (suitable for the child's weight and age) that meets applicable Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (FMVSSs).
(2) Each child should be properly secured in the Child Safety Restraint System.
(3) The Child Safety Restraint System should be properly secured to the school bus seat, using anchorages that meet FMVSSs.
A Child Safety Restraint System is defined as any device (except a passenger system lap seat belt or lap/shoulder seat belt), designed for use in a motor vehicle to restrain, seat, or position a child who weighs less than 50 pounds.
A fact sheet (School Transportation Section, Motor Transportation Division, National Safety Council, October 2002) has among its many recommendations that
(1) a bus attendant(s) should be on the bus,
(2) the Child Safety Restraint Systems should be properly secured by staff trained in proper securement procedures,
(3) seat belt cutters should be kept on the bus within reach of the seated driver, and
(4) the Restraint Systems should be withdrawn from service and destroyed after a crash or at expiration date.
Research from 2007 (www.gilsbus.ca) states that seat belt legislation for some, not necessarity pre-school, children has already taken effect. New York and Florida already have legislation requiring school buses be fitted with seat belts. California, Connecticut, Florida, Kansas, Louisiana, Missouri, New Jersey, New York, Nevada, Tennessee, Virginia, Washington (state), and Wisconsin have legislation passed or in the pipeline. However, it is important to remember there is a difference between the legislation requiring the bus to be equipped with seat belts, and legislation that requires seat belt use. ONLY New Jersey makes seat belt use mandatory throughout the state.
Would the seat belts be used? Of course, acts of vandalism would occur and constrant maintenance of seat belts would be necessary. Enforcement would not be easy. Under California's Vehicle Code - Section 27316 was added to guarantee that no driver, school official or school organization will be charged if a passenger fails to use the seat belt properly. At least on the surface, that legislation appears fair.
The pre-school Child Safety Restraint System is at the heart of the matter. Small children need extra protection everywhere they go. No matter the cost, schools and organizations must take steps to assure their safety. Consider the consequences of ignoring such standards.