It Is Time to Require Seatbelts on School Buses

By Paul Mitchell, Q.C.
Categories: Blog, Personal Injury

It is time to require seatbelts on school buses. Studies have shown they would save lives. A recent investigation by the CBC’s Fifth Estate shows how that thousands of injuries and numerous child deaths could have been prevented across Canada and the United States in the past three decades had school buses been equipped with seatbelts.

Despite the clear evidence Transport Canada has been at the forefront of a North American-wide campaign for the last 35 years against the use of seatbelts on school buses. They base their position largely on a 1984 study that asserted they are not only unhelpful — they may also cause injuries.

The four-month Fifth Estate investigation has exposed serious problems with that study, and reveals that government officials have known for years that seatbelts save lives and prevent injuries on school buses — information the department has kept hidden from the public. This is unacceptable, and clearly puts children’s safety at risk.

In the wake of the CBC investigation, it appears that Transport Canada may be changing its rigid position against seatbelts. After being told of results of The Fifth Estate‘s research, Transport Canada’s chief of crashworthiness research recently said seatbelts are “a good first step” towards improving school bus safety. While seatbelts don’t prevent all injuries and deaths, she agreed they “do prevent ejection.”

Suzanne Tylko, a senior engineer with Transport Canada, conducted a crash test in 2010 that concluded the high-back padded seats in school buses are not enough to keep kids safe in the event of a side-impact crash. Those tests results were never released publicly. (CBC)

The Fifth Estate spent several weeks compiling and reviewing numerous studies from across North America prepared by academics and test crash facilities, examining computer modelling and interviewing safety experts and scientists. The research showed repeatedly that seatbelts would have prevented numerous serious injuries and deaths in school buses.

In the United States, such findings have already gained widespread acceptance. Safety organizations like the National Transportation Safety Board and the National Safety Council are now unequivocal that seatbelts on school buses save lives and prevent injuries. In a speech in 2015, the head of the U.S. equivalent of Transport Canada — the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration — put it bluntly. “There is no question that seatbelts offer improved safety. Seatbelts [on school buses] will save the lives of children who we might otherwise lose in crashes,” Mark Rosekind said.

Texas is now one of eight states that have mandatory seat belt legislation for school buses. (CBC)

The Transport Canada test crash film claimed that a system called compartmentalization — the use of high-backed padded seats — was enough to keep children safe. What’s more, it said that lap seatbelts might cause “fatal injuries” and should be kept off school buses. The promotional film said that slow-motion video and test measurements showed the belted dummies experienced a potential “fatal” whiplash as their heads hit the back of the seat in front of them. The study was soon quoted in numerous industry and academic papers across North America.

Still, a close examination of that study shows that Transport Canada never tested side-impact crashes or rollovers, where most serious injuries and death occur. Nor were any of the dummies fitted with three-point lap and shoulder belts, already proven to prevent ejection and injuries in cars. A scathing 1985 review by University of Michigan researchers dismissed the study as “exaggerated” and said that its conclusions were invalid.

As for the unbelted adult dummies, the University of Michigan researchers say they received greater injuries than the belted ones, contrary to what Transport Canada said. “The unrestrained dummies hit the top of the seat backs with their necks,” the researchers said, noting Transport Canada failed to properly measure those injuries or account for them in their conclusions.

The University of Michigan critique concluded that Transport Canada’s own data actually “supports the need for occupant restraint on buses.” “No case can be made from the results of this test program that belted children will have an increased likelihood of severe head and neck injuries in frontal crashes,” the researchers said.

Records obtained by The Fifth Estate show that Transport Canada had initially wanted to put seatbelts on school buses and had even set a date for the rule to take effect in the late 1970s. But after some “aggressive” lobbying by school bus operators and school boards, the proposed seatbelt law was withdrawn. The top concern: the “cost-benefit ratio due to the low number of accidents involving school buses,” according to a 1985 Transport Canada document summarizing the plan to withdraw the seatbelt requirement on school buses.

The Fifth Estate has also learned that by the time of the 1984 study, Canadian officials were already aware of — and had written about — a previous U.S. study showing that seatbelts would have saved lives had they been installed in school buses. That study concluded that of seven fatalities in small school bus crashes six children would have survived if they’d all worn a seatbelt. The study also concluded that of 75 major injuries, “most” of them would have been “minor” if a seatbelt had been worn. That information was left out of the Transport Canada promotional film.

Also missing from the film was a key passage in the written report that followed the 1984 test crash. A Transport Canada official had written that in a rollover crash, “the unbelted occupant could be thrown about the vehicle and could be badly injured or unconscious.”

Since then, Transport Canada officials have continually been made aware of more studies reaching the same conclusions — that seatbelts save lives.

James Johnson, an executive with IMMI, a crash test site based in Indiana, says the anti-seatbelt lobby is starting to lose its influence over regulators and school boards. (CBC)

James Johnson, vice-president of marketing and business development with IMMI, a company that runs one of the largest crash test sites in the world just outside Indianapolis, says the high padded backs on school buses do help prevent injuries in frontal crashes, but are completely inadequate when the bus is hit from the side or tips over. “Compartmentalization does nothing for you in side-impacts or rollovers. So those are the type of accidents, unfortunately, where tragedy strikes and you have children injured and killed.”

To prove its point, IMMI conducted a side-impact test crash. In a video, an unbelted dummy is seen being ejected violently through a school bus window onto the pavement. “And that’s where a lap and shoulder belt will make a big difference,” said Johnson.

Johnson said the anti-seatbelt lobby is starting to lose its power over school boards and regulators. “What I’ve seen over the last five or six years is that side losing steam, losing their influence over it.” Today, eight states representing about 40 per cent of the U.S. population require seatbelts on school buses.

In Canada, the federal government regulates bus safety requirements while provinces are responsible for enforcement and fines. There is no law anywhere in the country that mandates seatbelts in school buses.

Now is the time  to have such a law.

It is long overdue.


Paul Mitchell, Q.C. is a BC personal injury lawyer who is a Past Member of the Board of Governors of the BC Trial Lawyers Association. He has extensive experience with severe injury claims, including brain injury claims, spinal injury claims, bicycle claims, death claims, ICBC claims, and other catastrophic injury claims. He is acts for injured clients all over BC and Alberta, and will not act for ICBC or any other insurance company.

For a confidential discussion of your personal injury claim, contact Paul Mitchell, Q.C. at 250-869-1115 (direct line), or send him a confidential email at mitchell@pushormitchell.com.