Why aren’t there seat belts for school buses in Ohio? ‘Not an easy decision’

Credit: DaytonDailyNews

Dayton Public Schools has released onboard bus video of a crash that overturned a school bus.

Credit: DaytonDailyNews

Only eight states require school bus seat belts, and Ohio is not one of them. A state school board committee delved deeply into the pros and cons of that issue this week but is not recommending a policy change.

David Bowlin, the Ohio Department of Education’s field relations director, said the last time an Ohio student riding inside a school bus died in a crash was 16 years ago. He said nationwide, there are about five child fatalities per year, out of 25 million students transported daily.

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But Bowlin acknowledged that many students have suffered injuries in crashes since then.

“We know statistically that school buses are one of the safest modes of student transportation,” Bowlin said. “There’s been a lot of studies and a lot of information that has come down, both on the side of having seat belts on school buses and on (not having them).”

Smaller school buses (under five tons) are required to include 3-point seat belts, but the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration does not require them on traditional full-size buses.

A Northmont City Schools bus crashed near the intersection of Brookville Phillipsburg and Sweet Potato Ridge roads Thursday morning. No children were injured during the crash. MARSHALL GORBY/STAFF
A Northmont City Schools bus crashed near the intersection of Brookville Phillipsburg and Sweet Potato Ridge roads Thursday morning. No children were injured during the crash. MARSHALL GORBY/STAFF

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California, Texas, Iowa and Nevada require lap-shoulder belts on all new school buses, while Florida, New York, New Jersey and Louisiana require lap belts only. The other 42 states do not require bus seat belts.

In 2015, then-NHTSA administrator Mark Rosekind supported seat belts on school buses, saying the issue should be “utterly uncontroversial” and that seat belts would save children’s lives. But that his position did not turn into a law or mandate.

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Bowlin said the only school districts ODE knows of with any seat-belted full-size buses are Avon Lake and Beechwood near Cleveland, each of which has two (in fleets of 25-35 buses).

Bowlin made his presentation to the state school board’s emerging issues and operational standards committee. Committee Chair Antoinette Miranda said the presentation was only informational, and was triggered by January testimony from School Bus Safety Alliance founder Rudolph Breglia, who is from Avon Lake. Breglia formed his group after a 2016 school bus rollover crash killed six children in Chattanooga, Tenn.

DPS Chief of Safety, Richard Wright II, left and Dayton Police Lt. James Mullins talked to the media Tuesday morning at Dunbar High School about Dayton students' return to in-person school next week.
DPS Chief of Safety, Richard Wright II, left and Dayton Police Lt. James Mullins talked to the media Tuesday morning at Dunbar High School about Dayton students' return to in-person school next week.

Credit: JIM NOELKER

Credit: JIM NOELKER

Rollover crashes

School buses’ visibility helps to limit crashes, and their sheer size helps deter injuries when collisions do happen, but an exception is when a bus is hit hard enough to flip on its side.

“We often see reports of buses that may get into rollover crashes and students are moved through the air because of the crash,” Bowlin said. “Obviously, students using seat belts would be restrained in the event of a crash.”

Just over a year ago, east of Columbus, a bus full of Thornville Sheridan High School students collided with a car that ran a red light. Video shows the initial impact jostled the students roughly, but largely did not knock them out of their seats.

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But two seconds later, the bus flipped onto its side, hurling the students airborne, onto the inside roof and side of the bus. They all climbed out and nine people were taken to a hospital, thankfully with no life-threatening injuries.

If the students had been wearing seat belts, the ones on the “high” side of the flipped bus would be dangling by their seat belts, but they wouldn’t fly against the metal side of the bus. That’s what happened to the driver of a Dayton Public Schools bus that flipped after a 2017 collision near Dunbar High School.

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As the driver tried to calm one young student seconds after the crash (only one of the six suffered minor injuries), she pleaded with other students to help her get free of the seat belt. She eventually freed the belt, falling to the low side of the bus.

At least one person was injured after a Dayton Public School bus and SUV collided.
At least one person was injured after a Dayton Public School bus and SUV collided.

Pros and cons

On the pro side, Bowlin said lap-shoulder belts would keep all students “compartmentalized” in their padded seats in case of a crash. He said current high-seat-back school bus design would make retrofitting existing buses with seat belts fairly easily, and retains the possibility of three-to-a-bench seating for small children.

Proper use of lap/shoulder belts also reduces schools’ liability, an issue they have to consider when busing thousands of students to and from school.

On the con side, Bowlin said seat belts can add significant time and potentially staffing needs to the busing process. Daily pre-trip inspections would now require checks of whether each seat belt was functioning. And schools would either need a bus aide to make sure younger students are belted, or the driver would have to do it each time children boarded, making each bus route take longer.

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Bowlin said new buses with seat belts also cost $7,000 to $10,000 more, while the cost of retrofitting existing buses can be as much as $15,000 to $20,000.

State school board member Christina Collins said there are tough decisions, some involving drivers’ ability to get kids strapped in, and their need to quickly evacuate belted-in kids in case of a crash or fire.

“When we heard the testimony in January, my gut response as a mom of four was, of course, why wouldn’t we put seat belts on buses?” Collins said. “The more I’ve learned … my big takeaway is this is not an easy decision at all.”

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