are buses really safe without seatbelts?
January 21, 2008 5:15 PM   Subscribe

Is it significantly safer to ride in buses without seat belts than in cars without seat belts? Conventional wisdom says yes (for example, many buses don't even have seat belts, presumably because it's safe enough without them) but is this perception accurate? Sources or statistics are appreciated but not strictly necessary.
posted by lgyre to Travel & Transportation (19 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I do not have statistics but I would argue that the conventional wisdom you offer might be incorrect -- I would argue instead that seatbelts are not included due to cost issues, both for installation and for maintenance. Further, there is no way to monitor usage and ensure compliance.
posted by proj at 5:19 PM on January 21, 2008

Buses, especially school buses, are designed to a much higher level of safety in a collision than cars. By design, you are seated above where any traffic impact may occur. Compare the height of the a bus passenger to the height of even an SUV bumper.

Here's one interesting page.
posted by The Deej at 5:26 PM on January 21, 2008 [1 favorite]

An accident involving a large bus would also incur far less passenger G forces than whats involved in a regular passenger car accident. Even if a schoolbus hits a large SUV it still probably outweighs it by 20,000 lbs. There will be a significant jolt, but nothing compared to what the SUV riders experience. You'd probably get thrown around a bit, but I'd expect it to be survivable by just about anyone on the bus.
posted by sanka at 5:34 PM on January 21, 2008

This article on the debate over shoulder belts in school buses gives an overview of some of the arguments around the topic.

While this source clearly has a bias (though that doesn't mean the statistics are bad), I don't think there's any dispute that the fatality rate per mile traveled on is much lower for a bus than a car.

Factors I'd guess (and I'd stress this is a total guess) are that buses tend to travel at much slower rates of speed, that they are much heavier (in a typical crash I'd imagine greater momentum wins, unless a rollover situation occurs) and more visible, and that professionally trained drivers are generally traversing familiar routes.

I imagine that leaving three point shoulder belts off buses is motivated by logistics and cost. People wouldn't use them, or would use them wrong, they'd get in the way, get tangled up and broken, the jerk next to you would be sitting on yours, they'd always be maladjusted. Mostly I wouldn't want 'em, though I used to think about the consequences of an accident when I took the occasional freeway-traveling express to work suburban temp jobs.
posted by nanojath at 5:34 PM on January 21, 2008 [1 favorite]

We were always told by the adults that the reason schoolbuses don't have seatbelts is to prevent children from being trapped inside in the event of a fiery accident -- which didn't even get a mention in the WaPo article! Damn the adults!

Now I'm going to go buy me an official Red Ryder, carbine action, two-hundred shot range model air rifle, with a compass in the stock and a thing that tells time.
posted by pineapple at 5:48 PM on January 21, 2008

The seats are basically padded roll-cages. Seat belts prevent smacking heads on steering wheels and ejections. Both of those problems cannot occur on a school bus (passengers).
posted by gjc at 6:17 PM on January 21, 2008

there are no seatbelts, on schoolbuses, anyway, so as not to scare the children.


hitting a car, the bus wins. hitting another bus, a sturdy wall, a train, the bus loses. the precious snowflakes fly thru the air.

as far as fiery wrecks, i would rather have a belt on, be alive to unbuckle and exit, than not, and have a roasted corpse. just my 20 yen.
posted by KenManiac at 6:20 PM on January 21, 2008

Conventional wisdom says yes (for example, many buses don't even have seat belts, presumably because it's safe enough without them) but is this perception accurate?

That's not wisdom. That's completely misunderstanding the power of legislation. There won't be seat belts in buses until they MAKE them put seat belts in them by law because it costs them too much. The reason people don't think they need seat belts revolves mainly around misunderstanding statistics.

Buses are safer than cars if you take the statistic that buses are involved in less crashes. Well yeah. Of course. There aren't as many buses as cars, so the actual number means nothing.

Whether safety belts should be introduced or not needs one proviso and one alone - in a (representative) bus accident, would seat belts improve the survival rate and reduce the injury rate?

The answer is "Of course it would, assuming the accident was of a magnitude that required the arresting force that a seatbelt supplies". Different buses fall into that category by differing amounts.

Coaches/Trans-European style buses now have seat belts fitted by law in Europe because it improves safety in the accidents that these style of buses have. Seat belts will, and have, improved safety in these accidents. They regularly travel for long distances on highways (where most of the severe accidents happen due to the higher speed) and will inevitably be involved in a high energy collision eventually. In a high energy collision, people will need to be stopped from flying out the windows or hitting into hard objects, or each other and otherwise dying. They need seat belts.

Now, as for School Buses in the US and Canada, it's a different matter. These, from a typical vehicle safety point of view, are hideously unsafe. They have no crumple zones to speak of, are large, heavy and unwieldy and have no seat belts. Their primary safety factor (their ability to avoid having an accident in the first place) is appalling, and their secondary safety factor in the recognised usual method (crumpling, arresting occupants etc) is pretty poor too. They do, however, luck out on a few things:

Unfortunately for us, and fortunately for the School buses and the kids, despite the fact that they still run around on 30-40 year old designs of chassis, the way that this makes them unsafe is only when it comes to the other cars that they will be hitting. And it makes them mostly only unsafe for the other cars involved. Having a large, heavy, object that doesn't crumple just means the vehicle it hits has to crumple twice as far to absorb the energy. That is why hitting walls is bad. You get squished. The heavier object always, always wins. It only loses if the decelleration of the large object is enough that the people get thrown about, and there is very little large enough to hit a school bus that can create that sort of decelleration. Minivans and the like will just get piled backwards in a crumpled heap while the bus slows down gradually. This, added to the fact that School buses spend the vast majority of their time on minor roads, going slowly with frequent stops, are painted bright yellow and have zillions of flashy lights means that they very rarely get driven into as it's really hard to miss them. And, let's be honest, you're never going to fall asleep driving one with all those screaming brats in the back, are you?

So, School buses are rarely traveling at a speed that will produce a sufficiently energetic accident to make seat belts necessary. They also don't frequent the high risk areas, nor do they travel much of their life around fast moving, heavy, vehicles that could make them have those kind of accidents. So the number of accidents that they could have that needs seat belts is really enormously low. So, you could argue that seat belts are not necessary as the form of transport is, by it's usage, safe enough not to warrant the expense.

Other factors are that, as has been stated, badly fitted or incorrectly worn seatbelts can be as/more dangerous as not wearing on. Also, they'd have to be full 3 point seat belts, which need more structure (and hence cost) to install, as lap belts alone are dangerous at the best of times, but downright bloody lethal for kids. They don't have the pelvic form to be held in place by them, so any sudden stop just smushes their internal organs against their spines. (Lap belts are worse than useless anyway - adults just get their noses broken on their knees. Stupid bloody idea for everyone, they are).
posted by Brockles at 6:23 PM on January 21, 2008 [1 favorite]

In the school buses I grew up riding, seat belts would have been an everyday threat to safety because the children would have devised all sorts of ways to strangle, hit, trip, and otherwise cause harm to each other with them. Not to mention attempting to rip them out or otherwise demolish them. (Not kidding, by the way.)
posted by frobozz at 6:48 PM on January 21, 2008 [3 favorites]

I was in a minor bus incident in Prague in 2006 in which the driver put on the brakes to avoid rear ending a car and people went flying. Sitting in an aisle seat, I actually flew about 4ft and smacked my face on one of the metal poles. Got a black eye and a pair of broken glasses for the trouble, we weren't going terrifically fast, we didn't even hit the car in front, and the bus driver just kept going after it. I'd say that over half the people on the bus were knocked over, and I don't know if anyone else was hurt. But it was a pretty low speed, minor "accident" and I'm sure a seat belt would definitely have kept my face intact.

That said, I don't know if I would have been wearing one even if it had been there. The nature of busses is the hop on, hop off quality of the commute. Even if the bus trip is going to be 20+ minutes, I've often had to change seats or stand with the fluctuations in passenger numbers.
posted by nerdcore at 7:08 PM on January 21, 2008

Some engineer will come here and explain what I mean, but I read that the safety in school buses comes from compartmentalization (possibly not spelled right). As noted above, the seats of a school bus are like padded roll cages. However, there is some physics behind the design, so it's more than just dumb luck.
posted by acoutu at 7:59 PM on January 21, 2008

I knew a lobbyist who, 15 years ago, worked for the school bus industry. One of their most important issues was keeping seat belts out of buses. So yes, there is political pressure influencing the exclusion of seat belts from school buses.

I remember one of her arguments being that kids wouldn't use them properly, would instead swing them at each other's heads.
posted by hhc5 at 8:52 PM on January 21, 2008

Any situation where you have a transit bus--the kind used for local commutes, with lots of room for standing passengers--you aren't going to have seat belts. The way that the seats are made and aligned, with lots of hard plastic and typically facing perpendicular to any force from a head-on collision, makes any sort of belt system useless. Besides, that doesn't do much good for the poor guy standing up and holding on to a stanchion.

There are regulations to make these kinds of buses safer. For example, federal regulations (in the U.S., natch, but also probably in most countries) make it illegal for a transit bus to travel over 35 miles an hour with any standing passengers. That's still fast enough to cause serious damage in a head-on collision with wall or other form of barrier, but those sorts of crashes are very unlikely.

I don't think most people understand what training for a class B driver's license is like--it's two weeks of extremely intensive practice and testing to make sure that you always have enough following time behind the car in front of you, to make sure that you know how to stay within your lane, and to never travel faster than you can keep your passengers safe. When a transit bus is involved in an accident, it's almost never head-on, but instead results from misjudging the tracking of the rear wheels during a turn. Scraping the mirror of a parked car or taking out a road sign is embarrassing as hell, but it's not a risk to any of the passengers on the bus itself.

In my time at the property I worked for, there was only one head-on collision with another vehicle. It was caused by the bus driver's error because he swung into the opposing lane. The bus barely reacted, even though the speed difference between the two vehicles was around 60 miles an hour. No one was hurt, but the guy didn't even make it back to the office before he was fired.
posted by thecaddy at 8:58 PM on January 21, 2008

As mentioned above, school buses are designed with compartmentalized seating, which is supposed to protect the riders in case of collision. Shoulder belts are most helpful in rollover accidents, which rarely occurs in school bus accidents due to their structure and center of gravity. What does happen often in school bus accidents, though, is fire, and frightened children might panic and not have the presence of mind to unbuckle their seatbelts in time to escape. Once the bus fills with smoke, the few adults on board don't have enough time to assist each child in unbuckling. On top of all that, studies have shown that on the few buses equipped with seatbelts, the kids used the heavy buckles as weapons.
posted by Oriole Adams at 9:30 PM on January 21, 2008

Shoulder belts are most helpful in rollover accidents

Actually, that's complete rubbish. They are most effective in standard style crashes (ie hitting something). 3 point seat belts are most effective at arresting sharply deccellerating bodies and preventing injury while spreading the loads over as wide an area as possible to prevent injury while doing so. They really aren't that effective in rollover as opposed to a full 4 or 6 point harness, and most accidents don't include rollovers.

What does happen often in school bus accidents, though, is fire,

I am extremely sceptical about this part. Being as fires are a small proportion of the total vehicle accidents anyway, and a diesel powered school bus would take some serious setting on fire to get it to burn, I think this is urban myth. Perhaps perpetuated as scare tactics by the lobbyists mentioned above to prevent losing the money from installing the belts. Canada lists two incidents in 8 years which is hardly often. Buses would have to be involved in every accident involving fire for this to be a reasonable claim, and if that was the case, the seat belts aren't the problem at all - it's why a vehicle is prone to catching fire.

This, and the weapons argument (studies say 'suspect they will' use them as weapons, mainly) and the fact I can't find any pilot programmes at all implementing belts, let alone any that were abandoned for buckle/eye injuries says to me the lobbying industry in the US is extremely effective at getting their objections out there with very little fact through scare tactics.

Basically, the only reason they aren't in school (or any other) buses is cost. And not enough kids are killed in school buses to make people force the bus companies to change that with legislation. Everything else is noise.
posted by Brockles at 5:19 AM on January 22, 2008 [1 favorite]

Buses would be safer with seatbelts. In my company, it's policy for all buses and transport to be fitted with seatbelts and if they aren't installed, then retrofitted.
I'm sure if I dug around, I could find the statistics to back this up, but no time right now unfortunately.

Scouting association in the UK banned buses with sideways facing bench seats in favour of front facing seats with seatbelts, in the 1980s I believe.
posted by arcticseal at 7:59 AM on January 22, 2008

For example, federal regulations (in the U.S., natch, but also probably in most countries) make it illegal for a transit bus to travel over 35 miles an hour with any standing passengers.

This seems highly dubious.
posted by herbaliser at 12:27 PM on January 22, 2008

For the record, that article is talking about coaches--like a greyhound bus or a NYC Express Bus. Everyone sits on a coach, they have nicer seats, and only a thin aisle for accessing the rows. I'm talking about transits, which are the hard plastic seated ones that run more local routes.

I assure you that transits are not allowed to go above 35 miles an hour if they have any standing passengers (not that this rule isn't constantly broken in smaller markets, but I digress).
posted by thecaddy at 6:27 AM on January 23, 2008

If you Google "school bus seatbelt" (without quotes), there are several relevant Canadian studies.
posted by acoutu at 8:01 PM on January 24, 2008

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