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Seat Belts on School Buses

School bus transportation is incredibly safe, but does that mean seat belts are not necessary on school buses?

Dr. Alan German, Chief of Collision Investigations in the Road Safety Directorate at Transport Canada, led a discussion surrounding seat belts and school buses at the Road Safety Conference in Winnipeg on Dec. 6, 2001. Participants in the discussion included school board officials from various regions of Manitoba.

This report is reprinted from Manitoba Child Injury Prevention News; Vol. 3 No. 3; Winter 2002



Dr. Alan German
Dr. Alan German reviews school bus collision data at the Road Safety Conference in Winnipeg
German began his presentation by showing 10 years of school bus collision data (1988-1997). In terms of occupant fatalities, 11 people died in school bus collisions over the 10-year period: eight of them were passengers and three were drivers. In terms of occupant injuries, 3,706 passengers and 1,035 drivers were injured over the same time period.

There are 20,000 school buses in Canada, travelling 476 million kilometers each year. With an average of one occupant death per year, school bus occupant fatalities are clearly not a large contributor to the 3,000 traffic fatalities annually in Canada, although we must be mindful that a single fatality involves someoneís child, German said.

Of note, people in vehicles colliding with school buses do not fare as well as the students. In the "other vehicle" category, 142 occupants were killed over the 10-year period. This means that in school bus/other vehicle collisions, 13 times as many people are killed in other vehicles than in the school buses themselves. "School buses are one of the safest, if not the safest, modes of transportation in Canada," he said.

The overall picture is positive even when looking at injury severity, German said. Investigations by university-based research teams in Canada have shown that 94 per cent of passengers in school bus crashes suffered no injury or a minor injury.

German says favourable injury statistics are not surprising, given that school buses are a low-risk environment. They are conspicuous vehicles on the road, given their size, bright yellow colour, and flashing lights; the structure of the bus holds up well in a crash; drivers are often very experienced; route planning minimizes the need for children to cross the road; and, school buses often stay off the road in adverse weather conditions.



Benefits of Seat Belts in School Buses

  • Seat belts perform well in high speed crashes
  • Seat belts will prevent children from being tossed around in buses (This is a benefit in cases of far-side impacts, rollovers and ejections)
  • There is an educational opportunity to stress the importance of seat belts
  • There will be a reduction in deaths and injuries, especially serious injuries, to bus occupants. Real-world data, however, show there are currently very few such deaths and serious injuries.

Limitations of Seat Belts in School Buses

  • Children may suffer seat belt-induced injuries if belts are not used correctly
  • The effectiveness of seat belts is limited in some cases of near-side impacts, especially when there is intrusion into the bus itself
  • Children who do not wear the seat belt could suffer injury from changes to bus design, such as stiffer seats needed to accommodate seat belt installation
  • Installation of seat belts comes with a high cost


German has developed a list of trade-offs when looking at seat belt safety (see "Trade-offs") but says to him, the item that is most compelling on the benefits side is the chance to form good habits surrounding restraint use at an early age.

"I think the thing weíre missing is educational opportunities," German said and then relayed the story of a colleagueís granddaughter who got on her first school bus and immediately asked "whereís the seat belt?" "How much is that educational experience worth to us?" German asked the participants.

A straw poll of the crowd at the end of the session showed that 20+ participants would not support the use of seat belts in school buses, while two participants would support their use. Transport Canadaís position, stated formally on its web site is that "information from all types of school bus collisions demonstrates that the current school bus design provides a high level of protection to occupants" and that "seat belts may actually adversely affect the safety of children on school buses."


Crashed School Bus Severe crashes often provoke debate
about seat belts on school buses


IMPACT - Injury Prevention Centre of the Children's Hospital, Winnipeg, Manitoba

IMPACTís position on seat belts in school buses:

IMPACT, like the American Academy of Pediatrics, supports the installation of seat belts on all newly purchased school buses. "While I agree school bus transportation is relatively safe, seat belts do provide children with added protection that can be crucial in certain types of crashes, such as rollovers," says Medical Director Dr. Lynne Warda, who is also a member of the AAP Committee on Injury and Poison Prevention.

The current system of protecting children in a crash, called compartmentalization, is the major principle by which school bus passengers are currently protected. The idea is to keep child passengers confined to a padded compartment in a crash. High seat backs and close spacing between rows help to achieve this compartmentalization. However, this system provides virtually no protection in non-crash events such as sudden stops and swerves, side impact crashes or rollovers. Seat belts are expected to outperform compartmentalization in these cases.

A 1999 report on improving school bus safety from the U.S. National Research Council estimates that if half of all school children on buses were using seat belts, the number of deaths and injuries could be reduced by 20 per cent. "Thatís a conservative estimate of seat belt use," says Warda. "With education and monitoring, belt use rates could climb much higher than 50 per cent, resulting in an even greater reduction in deaths and injuries."

In addition to preventing injuries, seat belts reduce driver distraction caused by children moving about in the bus. Finally, Warda agrees with Alan German of Transport Canada that seat belts on school buses have enormous educational value. "Kids who wear seat belts both in the family vehicle and the school bus are getting a consistent message," says Warda. "Even families who donít use child restraints may benefit, if children go home from school raising questions about why family members donít buckle up."

  School bus seat with integrated seat belts

The Safeguard School Bus Safety Seat pictured above is manufactured
by Indiana Mills and Manufacturing Inc. and features integrated seat belts


Manitoba Child Injury Prevention News is a publication of IMPACT, the
Injury Prevention Centre of the Children's Hospital, Winnipeg, Manitoba.