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Federal regulators speak out for seat belts on school buses

There are strict regulations here in Illinois and throughout the country regarding how children of various sizes and ages should be secured when in a car. However, when they get on the school bus every day, these regulations don't apply.

Safety advocates have urged for years that seat belts be required on school buses, but largely to no avail. Now, for the first time, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has come out in favor of mandating that children be buckled in using three-point seat belts when on school buses.

That position, voiced by the NHTSA administrator, marks a change in attitude for the federal safety agency. Previously, NHTSA has said that it was too costly to retrofit buses with seat belts and that their young passengers were safe without them. Now, the administrator says, "NHTSA's policy is that every child on every school bus should have a three-point seat belt."

One might think that this change in official policy would be welcomed by those involved in the business of transporting students. However, the National Association for Pupil Transportation, which is a school bus industry group, is already fighting back.

In a statement, the NAPT said that states and local school districts rather than federal regulators should determine whether seat belts be mandatory on school buses. The group noted that local officials in particular need to look at "a multitude of unique considerations bearing on purchasing decisions, especially when faced with budgetary constraints."

The NHTSA administrator acknowledges that this is somewhat of a change in position for NHTSA, which "has not always spoken with a clear voice on the issue of seat belts on school buses." However, he notes, it's consistent with the agency's emphasis on the importance of seat belts over the decades as "icons of safety."

It remains to be seen if and when Chicago area school buses are equipped with seat belts. If left to individual localities and school districts, which vary significantly in the amount of funding they have, restraints could become more prevalent in wealthier areas than in poorer ones. It may take parents speaking out on behalf of their children's safety to get seat belts on school buses.

In the meantime, if your child is injured in a school bus accident, it's important to seek legal guidance to determine what kind of recourse is available to seek compensation for your child's injuries.

Source: NBC News, "Car Safety Chief Backs Seat Belts on School Buses," Tom Costello, Nov. 10, 2015

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