For nearly a half-century, one of the most widely debated issues regarding school bus safety has been the use of seat belts. Current National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) regulations do not require seat belts in school buses over 10,000 pounds. But two recent industry opinions have signaled a significant shift in position on this issue.
In 2014, the National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services (NASDPTS) issued a position paper acknowledging the benefits of transporting students on buses equipped with lap/shoulder belts. More recently and perhaps more significantly, NHTSA Administrator Dr. Mark Rosekind delivered a speech on November 8, 2015 to members of NASDPTS and the National Association for Pupil Transportation (NAPT) in which he stated unequivocally that all school buses should be equipped with seat belts, and announced a series of steps designed to make it happen. (Read Dr. Rosekind’s remarks.)
In light of this shift, North Carolina Department of Public Instruction (NCDPI) Transportation Services Section Chief Derek Graham has announced a new pilot project to re-evaluate his agency’s position on the use of lap/shoulder belts on school buses in North Carolina. The new project will provide replacement school buses for 2016-2017 to school districts interested in taking part in the project by implementing new buses equipped with lap/shoulder belts in combination with a local policy requiring students to use the belts.
In addition to widely-acknowledged safety benefits, the use of lap/shoulder belts could result in other less obvious benefits for school districts: Improved student discipline which could in turn help increase driver retention. According to Graham, “The required use policy is a key element in this project that we believe to be a real opportunity to improve student discipline and thereby help out our school bus drivers. The testimony at NHTSA’s hearings this summer was quite compelling.”
This is the second and largest such project since 2003, when the state conducted a similar pilot project using thirteen school buses purchased from Thomas Built Buses equipped with lap/shoulder belts. (Read the 2007 final report.)
“This is an important and timely project for NCDPI Transportation Services, and we gladly accepted the opportunity to participate,” said Tom Schaaf, Vice President and General Manager of Carolina Thomas. “While Carolina Thomas does not take a position for or against the use of seat belts, we are very interested in helping NCDPI Transportation Services find the best solution for students and parents, bus drivers and school transportation administrators. We are pleased to partner with Thomas Built Buses and SynTec Seating Solutions to provide 75 buses equipped with lap/shoulder belts to be used in this new project,” said Schaaf.
In addition to including a much larger group of buses, the new project differs from the original 2003 project on another significant point. The 2003 buses utilized a 3/2 seating configuration, based on the available seat technology at the time, which resulted in a ‘staggered’ off-center aisle and reduced elementary capacity. The new seats, which are manufactured by SynTec Seating Solutions in High Point, North Carolina, are specially-designed to seat two large students or three small students with lap/shoulder belts. “This flexible seating configuration will serve school districts very well by providing the same standard-width center aisle as current buses not equipped with seat belts without reducing capacity”, said Schaaf.
“Considering that North Carolina’s state school bus bid was opened on November 18, 2015, NCDPI Transportation Services is to be commended for taking quick and decisive action to initiate this project and authorize seat belts on a large number of buses”, said Schaaf. “Carolina Thomas is proud to partner with Thomas Built Buses and SynTec Seating Solutions to provide a large majority of the buses that will be used in this project.”
Thomas Built Buses are manufactured in High Point, North Carolina. SynTec Seating Solutions located in High Point, North Carolina manufactures standard and optional seats for all Thomas Built Buses products. Carolina Thomas – headquartered in Greensboro – is the Thomas Built Buses dealer for North Carolina.