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School Bus Seatbelt Safety and Manufacturer Liability in Crashes: Accident and Wrongful Death Claims to Continue

According to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, two drivers were injured Wednesday morning when two school buses collided in DeKalb County. A bus from Bright Beginnings Learning Center, traveling southbound, rear-ended a DeKalb County special needs bus en route to McNair High School.

While no children were harmed during this particular bus accident, the collision itself brings back to minds of auto accident attorneys the as of yet unresolved question regarding school bus seatbelt safety and the requirement of safety belts on large school buses. It’s a question that causes concerns about accident and wrongful death claims as well.

In 2008, in a move designed to curb the approximate 10,000 child injuries that occurred each year as a result of school bus crashes, the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration did require the installation of seat and shoulder belts on smaller buses. The new federal regulations also stipulated that seat backs be raised on all school buses from 20 inches to 24 inches high, preventing children from tumbling forward during sudden stops.

However, as a story from the Injury News Board pointed out, there was still a “huge gap left by the regulations. Seat belts are still not required on the large school buses. NHTSA has not resolved that question, but instead it sets standards for seat belts on the larger buses in which most children ride.”

The choice by the NHTSA to allow this question to go largely unresolved seems to be starkly incongruous, especially in light of the fact that bus drivers themselves are required to wear restraints when transporting students. Furthermore, the standards set, while providing guidelines, are nothing more than mere suggestions that protect bus manufacturers against liability for accidents. Consumer group, Public Citizen, sees the omission as extending a “blanket of immunity to the manufacturing industry,” writes reporter Jane Akre.

The continued omission of a rule has wide-reaching implications for parents and students as well. Georgetown Law Professor David Vladeck summed the situation up in an interview with Injury News Board, “Suppose your child going to school and the bus has an accident. The accident experts say it was defectively designed and did not include the available technology that might have prevented the injury…If the bus is built in accordance with standard, you and you alone would bear the loss of your child, or of medical expenses. You would not be able to sue the bus manufacturer. The approval of this design relieves manufacturers of any obligation to build a safer bus.”

Even more alarming than the immunity granted by the lack of a rule, is the NHTSA’s argument against the installation of seatbelts: that the installation of seat belts would cause a 17% loss of seating capacity resulting in substantial additional expenses to school districts. Each seat is designed to hold three students, but three restraints cannot be fitted to a 39″ seat. NHTSA also claims to have found in its crash test studies that compartmentalizing students between padded and cushioned seats provided the needed safety. Some groups would rebut that assertion, claiming that compartmentalization actually fails to address rollover bus accidents and side impacts, especially when the compartmentalization itself is compromised.

On their Website, one group, the National Coalition for School Bus Safety, goes so far as to outline the real costs (those which impinge upon child safety):

•The short-term pain and suffering of those injured and recovering.

•The lifetime of suffering for those with permanent disabilities.

•The cost of litigation should lack of restraints cause injury.

•The increased cost of liability insurance.

The Website then cites specific examples of failed compartmentalization:

•A $28 million accident settlement by the Flagstaff Arizona School District for a school bus rollover accident which caused 31 injuries and 5 ejections. One child suffered a head injury that requires long-term care and another was left a quadriplegic after the accident.

•On March 28, 2000, a train struck the passenger side of a Murray County, Georgia, School District school bus. During the accident sequence, the driver and three children were ejected. Two of the ejected passengers received serious injuries and one was fatally injured. Of the four passengers who remained inside the bus, two were fatally injured, one sustained serious injuries. One, who was restrained by a lap belt, suffered only minor injuries.

This is undoubtedly a problem that will continue to persist until there is a change in legislation and the standard is metamorphosed into a concrete rule.