Why Buses Don't Have Seat Belts

Children on school bus
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It is now mandatory in all states to wear seat belts while in a car as either a driver or passenger. In addition, it is also mandatory for infants and toddlers to be in some kind of specialized car seat. Given the restraint requirements in other vehicles, why don't buses have seat belts?

Seat Belts Would Not Make Buses Safer

The main answer, at least for school buses (virtually all research on buses and seat belts has focused on school buses) is that seat belts do not make school buses safer. Overall, travel on a school bus is the safest way to travel—40 times safer than riding in a car—with only a handful of deaths occurring to passengers on school buses every year.

The explanation for the safety of school buses is explained by a concept called compartmentalization. In compartmentalization, the seats on the school bus are placed very close to each other and have high backs that are very padded. As a result, in an accident, the student would be propelled forward a very short distance into a padded seatback that, in a way, is like an early version of an airbag. In addition, the fact that people sit high off the ground in school buses also adds to the safety, as the impact location with an automobile would occur beneath the seats.

While school buses and highway buses both feature high-backed seats and elevated seating locations, the same cannot be said of city buses. In fact, the transverse seats—the seats that are parallel to the side of the buses—do not have any protection in terms of seats in front of them that can absorb an impact. And, while the nearly universal trend of purchasing low-floor buses makes it much easier for passengers, particularly elderly and disabled passengers, to get on and off the bus, it also means that in the event of a crash the other vehicle could end up in the seating area.

Seat Belts Would Significantly Increase the Cost of Buses

Another answer why buses do not have seat belts is cost. It is estimated that adding seat belts to buses would add between $8,000 and 15,000 to the cost of each bus. In addition, seat belts would take up room currently used as seats, meaning that each bus would have fewer seating places. The additional room in the bus taken up by seat belts would mean that bus fleets would have to increase by as much as 15% just to carry the same number of people. Such an increase would be especially difficult in cities that experience overcrowding on their transit vehicles.

Despite the Obstacles, There Has Been Some Progress in Requiring Seat Belts on Buses

Despite the cost and the fact that installing seat belts is unlikely to add much in the way of safety improvements, in 2018, eight states require seat belts on school buses—Arkansas, California, Florida, Louisiana, Nevada, New Jersey, New York, and Texas—although the laws in some states require adequate funding.

In contrast, no state requires seat belts on coach buses, although there has been some rumbling on the federal front about passing legislation requiring seat belts and other safety improvements on highway coaches—a rumbling that has increased in intensity with the recent increase in deadly bus crashes. In any case, unlike the school bus industry, the highway coach industry is not waiting around for legislation—up to 80% of new coaches now have seat belts installed. Unfortunately, given the long lifecycle of a highway coach—as much as fifteen to twenty years—it will be a while before all of them have seat belts.

In contrast with school buses and highway coaches, there has been little movement to require seat belts on city buses. From a practical perspective, there seems to be little need for seat belts on city buses. Although the design of the modern low-floor city bus is less safe than the design of school and highway buses, the fact that city buses rarely travel at speeds greater than 35 mph means that any collision is likely to be minor. Also, given that most trips on city buses are short and that many trips have standing passengers, the presence of seat belts will make even less of a difference.

Regardless of whether their passengers have seat belts, all buses provide seat belts for drivers and most bus companies make their drivers wear seat belts to avoid impact with the dashboard or windshield in the event of a collision.