Smaller school buses are treated like passenger vehicles when it comes to seat belt requirements. Because of their small size they are more likely to eject passengers; as a result, they are equipped with seat belts as a matter of course. As for standard size school buses, the effectiveness of seat belts has been a source of debate for several years.
In 1992, five years after New York passed a law requiring seat belts on school buses, New Jersey passed a similar law. While New York’s law makes use of the seat belts optional, New Jersey’s law requires children to buckle up. In 1999, Florida, Louisiana, and California also enacted laws for what they called “improved occupant restraint systems” on large school buses, although they have not yet decided exactly what type of restraint they wish to require on their buses.
It may seem odd that in an atmosphere of increased emphasis on safety there would be any question about seat belts on large buses. Yet opponents, citing data from NHTSA, have said that seat belts on buses might do little to help children. Rather, they believe, the improved interior design of school buses (known as compartmentalization) is more effective. Since the 1970s, school bus seats have been mandated by law to be well-padded on both sides, with high backs and extra-sturdy anchoring, and no exposed rivets. The design of the modern school bus has been compared to that of an egg carton; the extra padding around the seats helps protect the passengers during sudden impacts and keeps them from being ejected from their seats. Moreover, say opponents of school bus seat belts, in the event of an accident, it would be much harder for someone to get children out of a bus if they are all wearing seat belts. This issue will not be resolved easily. What both sides can agree on, however, is that school buses are definitely safer today than they were in the early 1970s.