A shift in gear? Movement to put seat belts on buses growing


(WPRI) — Students across Rhode Island will be getting back on board school buses soon, and the majority of those vehicles don’t have a safety feature required in millions of other transports.

“The only vehicles on the road that do not have seatbelts as a mandatory requirement are the larger school buses,” said Rep. Robert Nardolillo recently. He’s been advocating for years to require seat belts. The Coventry state rep has introduced three different bills.

“This isn’t something that I put forth as a legislator; I put it forth as a parent because I want the extra layer of safety for my children and other children riding to and from school,” Nardolillo said.

Since 2007, 11 seat belt bills have been introduced in the Rhode Island House. None have passed.

“I don’t know what the holdup is,” said Nardolillo. “I know that there was a little bit of pushback from school bus drivers — they didn’t want additional responsibilities in terms of having to oversee seatbelts with the children wearing them.”

Nardolillo is not running for reelection, so he can’t propose the bill again. But he’s hoping the latest data from the National Transportation Safety Board moves the issue along. In May, the NTSB started officially opening up to the idea. It recommended for the first time that each state require the installation of lap and shoulder belts in school buses.

“The science on this is shifting. For 30-plus years, the concept of ‘compartmentalization’ on school buses was the norm,” said Tim Duffy, executive director of the Rhode Island Association of School Committees.

Compartmentalization is a passive occupant protective system in which school bus seats are extra tall and extra padded, in order to reduce the possibility of bodies moving around in a crash.

“Students are protected within the seating compartment much like eggs in a carton,” the NTSB said on its website.

The NTSB’s website now says, after studying some crashes, “In these accidents, compartmentalization was not enough to prevent all injuries; for some of the children involved, a seat belt could have lessened their injuries or even saved their lives.”

As far back as 2015, the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) also supported seat belts on school buses.

Duffy says there are a number of challenges in requiring seat belts, including different ages of students using the same buses each day.

“Who’s liable if the seat belt is not properly adjusted?” he said. “If you have young kids — in the instance there is an accident — if they’re unable to loosen the seat belt, who’s going to be responsible for making sure that every student gets out through the proper exit to safety?”

As of the NTSB May report, Rhode Island was one of 42 states that don’t require any seat belts on large school buses.

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