New York bus crash: Why don't coach buses have seat belts?

Answers to your questions about the news.
March 14 2011 7:19 PM

Buckle Up, if You Can

Why don't all coach buses have safety belts?

World Wide Bus.
World Wide Bus

A Saturday-morning bus crash on a New York highway has left 15 dead. Initial reports suggested that the discount bus, ferrying passengers from the Mohegan Sun Casino in Connecticut to New York's Chinatown, had seat belts, but an employee for World Wide Tours told Slate that it did not. (See bus interior images here.) It's actually common, and perfectly legal, for buses to forgo belts. Why? Because it's not clear that they're effective. A study conducted by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in 2002 determined that, on large school buses, "lap belts appear to have little, if any, benefit in reducing serious-to-fatal injuries in severe frontal crashes. On the contrary, lap belts could increase the incidence of serious neck injuries and possibly abdominal injury among young passengers in severe frontal crashes." The same study found that lap-shoulder belts—the kind you wear in a car—do reduce head and neck injuries, but only a little. In most accidents, the National Transportation Safety Board has found that "compartmentalization," the protection of passengers with closely spaced bus seats with foam cushioning, works just as well. That said, seat belts could reduce the risk of death in a bus rollover crash by 77 percent, according to the NHTSA.

Opponents of seat belts on school buses point to several drawbacks. One is that it would be hard to make children wear them, and bus drivers should be concentrating on the road, not on making sure everyone is buckled up. They also argue that seat belts would reduce the seat capacity of any given vehicle, which would force school districts to buy more buses. Seat belts aren't cheap, either. The Congressional Research Service estimates that installing belts on school buses would cost between $8,000 and $15,000 for every bus, depending on size, spacing, and various retrofitting costs. Additionally, a cost-benefit analysis by the University of Alabama calculated that the cost of saving a life by requiring safety belt laws—between $32 million and $38 million per "equivalent life saved"—would outweigh the benefits. (The "value of a statistical life" is $6,443,964 in 2010 dollars, according to the Department of Transportation.)

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Bus companies and transportation agencies emphasize that buses are already extremely safe. Kids are much safer getting to school by school bus than by car, by bike, or on foot, according to a report by the National Academy of Sciences. The fatality rate of coach buses in 2007 was 0.5 per 100 million vehicle miles traveled, according to the American Bus Association. For passenger vehicles, the rate is 1.04 per 100 million miles.

Still, high-profile crashes in recent years have renewed calls for installing safety belts on buses. Federal law already requires belts in school buses that weigh less than 10,000 pounds, since passengers in a "short bus" are more likely to be thrown from their seats during an accident. And six states—New York, New Jersey, Louisiana, Florida, California, and Texas—require all school buses to have seat belts or some other restraint.

Although no state currently mandates safety belts on coach buses, policies may change soon. Two U.S. senators recently reintroduced the Motorcoach Enhanced Safety Act, which would require coach buses to have seat belts, ejection-proof windows, and roofs that can withstand rollovers. U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has also proposed requiring seat belt laws for new coach buses, which would cost an estimated $25 million annually and would save an estimated one to eight lives a year and prevent hundreds of injuries. Bus manufacturers are already adjusting: As many as 80 percent of new coaches include seatbelts, according to the American Bus Association.

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Explainer thanks Eric Bolton of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and Peter Pantuso of the American Bus Association.

Christopher Beam is a writer living in Beijing.