Why Don't Buses Have Seatbelts?

Children on school bus
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It is now mandatory in all states to wear seatbelts 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 seatbelts?

Seatbelts Would Not Make Buses Safer

The main answer, at least for school buses (virtually all research on buses and seatbelts has focused on school buses) is that seatbelts 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.

Seatbelts Would Significantly Increase the Cost of Buses

Another answer why buses do not have seatbelts 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, seatbelts 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 seatbelts 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 Seatbelts on Buses

Despite the cost and the fact that installing seatbelts is unlikely to add much in the way of safety improvements, in 2010, six states currently require seatbelts on school buses—California, Florida, Louisiana, New Jersey, New York, and Texas—although the laws in Louisiana and Texas will not be in effect unless there is adequate funding. Given that Louisiana and Texas are Republican-dominated states with a tradition of limited government funding, it seems unlikely that those laws will come into effect anytime soon. In contrast, no state requires seatbelts on coach buses, although there has been some rumbling on the federal front about passing legislation requiring seatbelts 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 seatbelts 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 seatbelts.

In contrast with school buses and highway coaches, there has been little movement to require seatbelts on city buses. From a practical perspective, there seems to be little need for seatbelts 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 seatbelts will make even less of a difference.

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