Search Interpretations


    Mr. Howard Dashney
    Executive Director
    Michigan Association for Pupil Transportation
    6250 W. Michigan Avenue
    Lansing, MI 48915

    Dear Mr. Dashney:

    This responds to your December 19, 2002, letter to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and subsequent phone conversation with Deirdre Fujita of my staff, concerning the application of Federal motor vehicle safety standards to the installation of "positioning belts" on large (over 10,000 pounds gross vehicle weight rating) school buses. You inquire on behalf of the Michigan Association for Pupil Transportation (MAPT), which represents various school bus fleet administrators, including public and private school bus fleets, private contractors, and Head Start fleet operators.

    You explained that MAPT members have been informed by the Michigan Department of State Police, Motor Carrier Division (MCD), that they will no longer be able to use positioning belts in their school buses. You explain that positioning belts are used to hold special-needs students upright in their seats when they cannot remain upright on their own, and/or to control the movement of students with behavioral problems. You state that the belts are attached to the seat frames or seat backs of the school bus seats and "are not meant for or used as protection in a crash." You further explain that MCD inspectors have prohibited the use of the belts because they believe that the belts do not comply with Federal standards. You ask two questions regarding this situation.

    I note that we have also received a related inquiry from Sgt. Sharron Vancampen of the MCD, asking about use of the positioning devices on school buses. Because your letters ask about the same situation, we will respond to you both simultaneously and will copy you both on our responses.

    First, you ask whether large school buses must meet the Federal motor vehicle safety standards (FMVSSs) that apply to buses. The answer is yes. Under our definitions of motor vehicles (49 CFR 571.3) a "school bus" is a type of "bus." Thus, a school bus must meet all FMVSSs applying to "school buses" and those applying to "buses." Second, you ask if the MCD is correct in its interpretation of our standards.[1]

    Based on the information you provided in your letter and on the phone, generally speaking, few NHTSA requirements apply to the situation presented. We assume that the positioning belts are being installed on used (not new) buses by MAPT members.

    The installation of the belts is not in itself a violation of NHTSA requirements. According to the information you provided, the belts presumably meet all applicable requirements of the Federal motor vehicle safety standard for seat belt assemblies, FMVSS No. 209. Thus, the sale of these belts to your members did not violate Federal requirements.

    The belts are being used to restrain and/or position children, some of whom weigh 50 pounds or less. As such, there is an issue as to whether the belts are "child restraint systems" subject to FMVSS No. 213. We believe the answer is no, because the belts are Type 1 seat belt assemblies (i.e., lap belts), and Type 1 seat belts are excluded from the definition of "child restraint system" in S4 of FMVSS No. 213, Child Restraint Systems.

    Your members installation of the positioning belts is not directly regulated by an FMVSS. Safety standards that apply to installation of seat belts, FMVSS No. 208, Occupant Crash Protection, and FMVSS No. 210, Seat Belt Assembly Anchorages, are "vehicle standards" applying only to new vehicles. The general rule is that installation of aftermarket equipment is not subject to the requirements set forth in vehicle standards.

    However, there is another statutory provision that might affect MAPT members installation of the belts. If a vehicle is modified after its first sale, 49 U.S.C. 30122 provides, in pertinent part:

      A manufacturer, distributor, dealer, or motor vehicle repair business may not knowingly make inoperative any part of a device or element of design installed on or in a motor vehicle or motor vehicle equipment in compliance with an applicable motor vehicle safety standard.

    School buses are certified as meeting Federal school bus safety standards. Seats on a large school bus are certified to the "compartmentalization" requirements of FMVSS No. 222, School Bus Passenger Seating and Crash Protection. The compartmentalization concept calls for sturdy yet yielding well-padded high-backed seats to protect passengers. With respect to Standard No. 222, the compartmentalized school bus seats are elements of design installed in compliance with this safety standard. The "make inoperative" prohibition requires any entity listed in 30122 to ensure that the school buses will continue to afford the occupant protection required by Standard No. 222, even with the positioning belts attached to them.

    Note, however, that the make inoperative prohibition does not apply to modifications vehicle owners make to their own vehicles. Thus, Federal law would not apply to a situation where MAPT members installed the belts in their own vehicles, even if the installation were to result in the vehicle no longer complying with the safety standards. Nonetheless, NHTSA urges owners to exercise care in modifying their vehicles so as not to degrade the safety provided by the original systems. Further, States have the authority to regulate the use of motor vehicles, including the manner in which school buses are modified and operated.

    Note also that, notwithstanding your intent in using the belts only as "positioning belts," as a practical matter the belts could act similarly to "lap belts" in a crash. NHTSA recommends that lap belts be installed only on "seat belt ready" school bus seats (seats that are able to withstand the forces generated in a crash), and also in a manner that meets FMVSS No. 210.

    To summarize, the sale of the seat belts to MAPT members did not violate the FMVSSs. The installation of the belts on the school bus seats by the MAPT members was not subject to an FMVSS, if the members modified their own vehicles. If a manufacturer, distributor, dealer, or motor vehicle repair business modified the vehicle, the modifier must be sure not to make inoperative any part of the school bus seat installed in compliance with FMVSS No. 222 or any other Federal safety standard. We recommend that lap belts be properly installed on "seat belt ready" seats on school buses.

    Please contact Deirdre Fujita at (202) 366-2992 if you have further questions.


    Jacqueline Glassman
    Chief Counsel


[1] We lack the resources to make a detailed analysis of the memorandum you enclosed from your counsel arguing against the validity of the MCDs conclusions, except to note, as discussed earlier in this paragraph, that the memorandum is incorrect in concluding that school buses need not meet the FMVSSs that apply to buses. We may not necessarily agree with the memorandums other interpretations of the FMVSSs. Further, keep in mind that we cannot interpret the requirements of other Federal agencies. As to compliance with Head Start or other Federal regulations, you should direct your question to the agency involved.