Should all school buses have seat belts?
A May 2018 school bus crash in New Jersey tragically killed 10-year-old Miranda Vargas and middle school teacher Jennifer Williamson. The bus collided with a dump truck en route to a student field trip, and the 77-year-old bus driver was subsequently charged with two counts of vehicular homicide.
Since then, victim Vargas’s father Joevanny Vargas successfully pushed New Jersey to require three-point seat belts — featuring both lap and shoulder belts — on school buses. Only eight states currently have the mandate, although they span the political spectrum and include all of the four most populous states: Arkansas, California, Florida, Louisiana, Nevada, New Jersey, New York, and Texas.
On the federal level, a regulation passed in 2008 requires all buses less than 10,000 pounds to have seat belts. But most buses, in particular most school buses, weigh more than that and are exempt from the mandate.
What the legislation does
The Secure Every Child Under the Right Equipment Standards (SECURES) Act would mandate seat belts on all school buses throughout the country.
The House version was introduced on May 16 as bill number H.R. 2792 by Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-NJ5), the representative for Paramus, New Jersey’s congressional district. The Senate version was introduced a few weeks later on June 12 as bill number S. 1818, by Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ), one of New Jersey’s U.S. senators.
What supporters say
Supporters argue the legislation will save lives and help prevent more needless tragedies.
“I remember that May day like it was yesterday. Only hours after the tragedy, one parent called me and asked if the bus had seat belts and if the children were wearing them,” Rep. Gottheimer said in a speech announcing the legislation. “I immediately checked with the school and I was told that indeed the children were buckled up, with lap belts, as required by New Jersey law.”
However, “three-point, lap-and-shoulder seat belts [for] every car and truck is required by law — and for good reason,” Rep. Gottheimer continued. “The lap belt is a relic of the past. Why don’t we require our children to wear them?”
“Every day, nearly 600,000 school buses carry more than 25 million students to and from school, activities, and class trips. We don’t allow our children to ride without their seat belts when they’re in our cars,” Rep. Gottheimer added. “Yet, in buses they could?”
What opponents say
Opponents counter that school buses are actually one of the safest forms of transportation, and that three-point seat belts — while well-intentioned — would not prevent most of the very few deaths that occur.
“The best way to provide crash protection to passengers of large school buses is through a concept called ‘compartmentalization,’” the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) wrote in a 2006 report.
“This requires that the interior of large buses provide occupant protection such that children are protected without the need to buckle-up,” the NHTSA report continued. “Through compartmentalization, occupant crash protection is provided by a protective envelope consisting of strong, closely-spaced seats that have energy-absorbing seat backs.”
“In 1989, the NAS [National Academy of Sciences] completed a study of ways to improve school bus safety and concluded that the overall potential benefits of requiring seat belts on large school buses were insufficient to justify a federal mandate for installation,” the NHTSA report added. The study concluded that “the funds used to purchase and maintain seat belts might be better spent on other school bus safety programs and devices that could save more lives and reduce more injuries.”
Odds of passage
The House version has attracted five bipartisan cosponsors: three Democrats and two Republicans, all representing districts in either New Jersey or New York. It awaits a potential vote in the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.
The Senate version, sponsored by Sen. Menendez (D-NJ), has attracted one Democratic cosponsor: New Jersey’s other U.S. senator, Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ). It awaits a potential vote in the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee.
The combination of red and blue states which have passed a three-point seatbelt mandate may give reason to believe this legislation could pass a split Congress. But as an analysis from Stateline pointed out, most states which have considered such a three-point seatbelt mandate on a state level haven’t actually passed it.