Is there a need for seat belts on school buses?

January 06, 2011

On the rare occasion that there is a collision involving a school bus, the question is always raised as to whether there is a need for seat belts in school buses.

School buses have an enviable safety record. They are already one of the safest methods of transportation. It is 16 times safer than travelling in a family car per passenger/kilometre of travel.

Safety experts, including the Canada Safety Council, do not believe seat belts on school buses would improve safety. There is no scientific evidence that lives would be saved. Transport Canada has applied approximately 40 safety standards to the design and construction of school buses made in and imported into Canada. These include specialized brake systems, lighting, emergency exits, escape hatches in the roof, and high padded seatbacks that cushion the impact of a crash.

School buses are not passenger vehicles. They are built to rely on safety not on seat belts, and are designed and constructed differently from passenger cars. They are bigger, heavier, and higher so they have a body-on-frame design. Newer systems, such as an anti-lock braking system would be more beneficial.

School buses protect passengers through “compartmentalization,” a design that includes:

  • Seats with high backs;
  • Seats filled with energy-absorbing material;
  • Seats placed close together to form compartments;
  • Strong seat anchorages.

Research has shown that lap belts could actually increase the risk of head injuries in a head-on collision (the most common type of bus collision). By holding the child’s pelvis firmly in place, the torso would whip forward; with the head striking the back of the seat in front of them with greater force than if the whole body had hit the seat. This could result in serious head and neck injuries.

Combination lap and shoulder belts would require stiffer seats, which could increase injury to students who are not buckled up. The driver cannot ensure that every child has their seat belt on; some buses can carry up to 70 children. Moreover, the shoulder belts can lead to abdominal injuries because of “submarining” – when children slip down, risking injuries to organs covered by the lap belts.

Beyond certain engineering problems, someone would need to ensure the seat belts are used, adjusted properly between uses by smaller children and larger children and repaired when damaged. In an emergency, seatbelts could hinder evacuation. Young children should not be placed in a situation where they are responsible for their safety.

Although school buses have an excellent safety record, mishaps can happen. These mishaps can happen on the bus, however, it is more common for injuries to be sustained once outside the bus, including being hit by their own school bus or other vehicles.

Children who walk to school or use other forms of transportation are exposed to higher risk than travelling on the school bus.