2289 Southeast Madison Street
Stuart, FL 34997
Dear Ms. Platt:
This responds to your letter of August 29, 1994, in which you inquire whether a child "partially sitting on a bus seat [is] provided crash protection of Standard 222." You explain that you were referring to a third child sitting on the edge of a bus seat nearest the aisle. The child can only face the seat across the aisle, rather than face forward, because the bench seat is overcrowded.
Some background information would be helpful in responding to your question. 49 U.S.C. 30101, et seq. (formerly known as the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 1966) provides this agency the authority to issue Federal motor vehicle safety standards (FMVSSs) applicable to new motor vehicles and new items of motor vehicle equipment. Each new vehicle or item of equipment that is sold to the consumer must comply with all applicable FMVSSs in effect on its date of manufacture. However, once the vehicle or equipment is sold, the use of that product becomes a matter of State jurisdiction. NHTSA has no authority to regulate the operation of used vehicles or items of equipment.
With respect to school buses, it has been shown that school bus transportation is one of the safest forms of transportation in America (see enclosed School Bus Safety Report, May 1993). Every year, approximately 380,000 public school buses travel approximately 3.8 billion miles to transport 22 million children to and from school and school related activities. Occupant deaths per vehicle mile travelled in school buses are about one-fourth those in passenger cars. Crash protection in large school buses, those with a gross vehicle weight rating (GVWR) of over 10,000 pounds and which typically seat 16 or more, is provided by "compartmentalization." That concept requires strong, well-padded, well-anchored, high-backed and evenly- spaced seats for school bus occupant protection. Compartmentalization has been shown to be effective by independent studies of the National Transportation Safety Board and the National Academy of Sciences. Small school buses, on the other hand, those with a GVWR of 10,000 pounds or less and which typically seat fewer than 16 occupants, must be equipped with lap or lap/shoulder belts at all designated seating positions.
Turning to your inquiry, this agency agrees it is far less safe for children to sit on the edge of school bus seats, facing the seat across the aisle, rather than face forward. To get the full benefit of compartmentalization, the child occupant should face forward to be cushioned and contained between the strong, well-padded seat backs on the school bus. Thus, Standard 222 requires school bus passenger seats to be forward-facing (paragraph S5.1). When a child is sitting on the edge of the bus seat, as you described, it would seem that either the school bus is overloaded or the passengers are seating themselves improperly, indicating a possible lack of adequate supervision. This agency is seriously concerned about such conditions, but as pointed out above, once a vehicle is sold to the first retail customer, the use of that vehicle becomes the responsibility of the State.
Since the States regulate the use of school buses, we recommend that you contact your State and/or local pupil transportation or school officials to inform them of your concerns. The Governor's highway safety representative for Florida is:
Mr. Frank Carlile Assistant Secretary for Transportation Policy 605 Suwanne St., MS-57 Tallahassee, FL 32399-0450 Telephone: (904) 922-5820
I am also enclosing for your information a copy of Highway Safety Program Guideline No. 17, Pupil Transportation Safety. This publication was issued jointly by this agency and the Federal Highway Administration and provides recommendations to the states on the operational aspects of their school bus and pupil transportation safety programs. Although these recommendations are not mandatory, they might be helpful in your discussions with school officials.
I hope this information is helpful to you. Should you have any further questions or need additional information, please feel free to contact Walter Myers of my staff at this address or at (202) 366-2992.
Philip R. Recht Chief Counsel