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Why many school buses don't have seat belts

Posted at 4:51 PM, Sep 04, 2018
and last updated 2018-09-07 16:47:59-04

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DENVER – The National Transportation Safety Board now recommends all new school buses have three-point seat belts but has no authority to require this.

A Contact7 review of several districts shows most do not have seat belts on buses and in Denver, where some buses do have belts, students are not required to wear them.

In Jefferson and Douglas counties, for example, buses do not have seat belts, the districts told Contact7. Buses in Littleton do not have them either.

"In the history of crashes we're starting to see just an undeniable benefit of the shoulder belt," NTSB investigator Tom Barth, who investigates highway crashes for the federal agency, said.

Three-point seat belts have a shoulder and lap belt like most vehicles on the road.

As part of Denver7’s 360 approach to storytelling, we examined points of view about whether seat belts are needed on school buses.

Few states require seat belts

Only Arkansas, California, Florida, Louisiana, New Jersey, Nevada, New York and Texas have statewide rules requiring buses have seat belts. Some of those states do not provide funding for districts to buy buses with seat belts, so the rule is not always followed.

There is no such requirement statewide in Colorado.

Some say buses are safe enough without seat belts.

School buses safest way to travel

School buses are the safest form of transportation, according to the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration.

Four to six school-age children die each year on school buses which is less than one percent of all traffic fatalities nationwide, NHTSA says on its website. For some perspective -- the National Safety Council estimates there were 40,000 vehicle deaths in 2017.

“Your child is much safer taking a bus to and from school than traveling by car,” the website says.

District transportation director

Nicole Portee is Denver Public Schools Transportation director. Her view is that seat belts are great but not essential. Some district buses have lap belts, which don’t meet NTSB’s suggestions. Only three large buses and 24 smaller buses have lap and shoulder belts.

"Seat belts enhance safety on school buses," Portee said.

She says if funding allows going forward, she will consider buying three-point seat belts. She says she will recommend future buses have the three-point seat belts.

The district has other safety steps and measures.

"Here at DPS, we take a lot of time to ensure drivers are trained on defensive training," Portee said.

School bus seats are designed to keep a student in the seat compartment – the area where the student sits – during many crashes.

Because of these safety measures, she's not in favor of retrofitting the district's 400 buses that don’t have lap and shoulder belts with them.

Even when buses have seat belts, students are not required to wear them with Denver Public Schools. It’s a decision left up to riders, except for the youngest students who are provided with three-point belts. Portee said in most cases it is a decision left up to students and families.

Installing seat belts on current buses would run between $8,000 and $10,000 per bus based on the size and type of bus, the district has said.

"My view is that money should be spent in the classroom," Portee said.

Bus drivers' union offers safety suggestion

The union president for the school bus drivers’ union has a slightly different take. He’s not in favor of spending the money on to retrofit old buses but instead says students would be safer if buses weren’t packed with students, often three to a seat.

"Buses are packed, high school kids are larger than they used to be. When you have that many children kind of crammed into a bus for a short period of time, you can't feasibly put seat belts on,” union president John Adams said.

His solution: fix the school bus driver shortage in our state by paying drivers more than the $18.52 an hour they get now. He says them more buses can operate with fewer students.

"You put them three to a seat because you're loaded to capacity. That creates a crowded situation where the kid on the outside is going to be hanging off the seat," he said.

View from the driver's seat

Bus driver Chris Stambaugh's view from her driver's seat is a bit different.

She was involved in an accident while driving her bus when another car veered into her lane.

She wonders, in an emergency, could students get their buckles undone fast enough?

"It would just take time to undo each one of those buckles -- three per seat," she said.

She'd rather see the money go toward safety in a different way -- educating all of us what do when you see a bus with its red light flashing and its stop sign out.

"The parents and adults are just oblivious," Stambaugh said.

Mom says relax

Denver mom Jodi Rogers thinks buses should have seat belts.

“Obviously we wear seatbelts in our own cars, and it’s the standard,” she said. But she says knowing how rare it is for a child to die in a school bus accident, she’s not overly worried.

“I don’t worry about it very often. On a scale of one to 10, I’m maybe a five,” Rogers says. There are other issues more pressing for moms to worry about, she says.

What's your solution?

What do you think? Does your child’s school bus have lap and shoulder belts? Do you wish they did? Share your view with us by emailing