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Where does N.J. stand on requiring seat belts in school buses?

May 18 2018

The decision to require seat belts in large school buses, similar to the one involved in a fatal bus crash on I-80 Thursday, is left up to individual states.

New Jersey is one of seven states with laws requiring seat belts, but only California and Nevada mandate three-point seat belts, similar to the type used in passenger cars.

A state lawmaker has tried unsuccessfully for five years to change the law to require school buses to have the same type of shoulder and lap belts used in cars and other vehicles. 

What does New Jersey law require now?

New Jersey's law requires lap belts and high back seats that meet federal standards. It does not require three point belts with a shoulder harness as California and Nevada do.

What does federal law require in school buses?

Federal regulations were changed by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in October 2009, requiring all smaller school buses built after October 2011 weighing 10,000 pounds or less to be equipped with seat belts.

The height of seat backs in buses built after 2009 were increased. High back, padded seat backs also had to be designed to withstand a certain amount of force without breaking or bending to hold passengers in place, a theory called compartmentalization. 

Why do school buses need three-point lap and shoulder belts? 

A bill introduced by State Senator Samuel Thompson, R-Ocean, would require new buses in New Jersey be fitted with three-point seat belts. The bill is in the Senate Education Committee. Thompson has proposed the bill since 2013, but it never went to a vote of the Senate or Assembly.

Thompson said he introduced the first bill in 2013 after a fatal school bus crash with a truck in Chesterfield. An 11-year-old girl was killed inside the bus, even though she was wearing a lap belt. A three-point seat belt would hold children more securely in place, experts said.

"That's what inspired me to put the bill in. Kids can go far and get seriously injured, even if they have a lap belt on," he said. "I want to see if we can get this (bill) moving."

The National Transportation Safety Board recommended three-point belts be installed in school buses after investigating the Chesterfield crash, as had the NHTSA in 2015, but the federal administration stopped short of mandating it.

What is the opposition to requiring three point belts?

The only opposition in the past has been the cost, Thompson said. NHTSA estimated the cost to be $7,000 to $10,000 per bus. That cost can't be compared to the life of a child, he said.


By Larry Higgs lhiggs@njadvancemedia.com,
NJ Advance Media for NJ.com