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More than three decades ago, UCLA engineers performed a series of classic school bus crash studies, which determined that the major cause for injury in school bus accidents was the inadequacy of school bus seats. They proposed “compartmentalization” of the child occupants between high-back, well-padded and well-anchored seats capable of absorbing crash forces with large aisle side panels to contain riders. A lap belt was recommended to provide substantial additional protection.

Approximately ten years later, in response to a Congressional mandate, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration ("NHTSA") promulgated Federal Motor Vehicle Standard 222 that provided for some of the proposed features. The 222 seat was better anchored, padded and designed for energy absorbing and was 4 inches higher than seats then in use. No seat belts were required under 222 and the seat height, while improved, was still lower than UCLA engineers recommended.

The NHTSA continued to research the crashworthiness of School buses for the next 25 years before releasing in April 2002, “REPORT TO CONGRESS, School Bus Safety: Crashwothiness Research.” A majority of this report focused on front impact collisions (to the exclusion of side-impact concerns) and again, concluded that while seat belts and additional height on the seats of buses would provide increased safety, their marginal benefits did not outweigh the costs of implementation. Additionally, the NHTSA concluded that the installation of seat belts would cause a 17% loss of seating capacity resulting in substantial additional expenses to school districts. This was because three restraints cannot be fitted to a 39” seat (standard size on most buses).

It should be noted that, despite measures predating the 2002 report, litigation in school bus accidents has been somewhat common, particularly in relation to the failure of existing safety measures.

  • A $28 million accident settlement by the Flagstaff Arizona School District for a school bus rollover accident which caused 31 injuries and 5 ejections. One child suffered a head injury that requires long-term care and another was left a quadriplegic after the accident.
  • Successful litigation based on the failure of compartmentalization and absence of seat belts with commensurate settlements has occurred in Corpus Christi and Galveston Texas, Cincinnati, Ohio, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Columbia, Maryland, and Memphis, Tennessee.
  • On March 28, 2000, a train struck the passenger side of a Murray County, Georgia, School District school bus. During the accident sequence, the driver and three children were ejected. Two of the ejected passengers received serious injuries and one was fatally injured. Of the four passengers who remained inside the bus, two were fatally injured, one sustained serious injuries. One, who was restrained by a lap belt, suffered only minor injuries.

New Federal Rule to Make School Buses Safer and Allow Districts to Use Federal Funds to Pay for Seat Belt Installations

New federal rules announced last week will make the nation’s 474,000 school buses safer by requiring higher seat backs, mandating lap and shoulder belts on small school buses and setting safety standards for seat belts on large school buses.

“Even though riding in school buses is the safest form of travel in America today, any accident is still a tragedy,” said Secretary of Transportation Mary Peters. “Taken together, these steps are designed with a single purpose, making children safer.”

The new rule requires all new school buses in America to be equipped with 24-inch-high seat backs, instead of the 20-inch-high seat backs previously required. Higher seat backs will help prevent taller and heavier children from being thrown over the seat in a crash, decreasing the chance of injury to them and the children in front of them.

New school buses weighing less than five tons will be required to have three-point seat belts. She noted that the lap and shoulder belts better protect children in small buses, adding that smaller school buses are more vulnerable because they don’t absorb shock as well as larger buses.

The federal government also set new standards for seat belts on large school buses. Standards will improve seat belt safety and help lower the cost of installing the belts. This measure was taken despite the (pre-warned and now realized) conclusion that seating capacity on buses will be reduced. The federal government will allow school districts to use federal highway safety funds to pay for the cost of installing belts.

Deputy Transportation Secretary Thomas Barrett, outlined the new school bus rules during a visit to a Deatsville, Ala., Elementary school with the Alabama Governor, Bob Riley. It was a phone call from Governor Riley to Secretary Peters following a November 2006 bus crash in Huntsville which helped prompt the new rule.

For the entire text of the new rule, visit:

Matt Tynan, Author

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