What Part Does Compartmentalization Play in School Bus Safety?

Hildebrand & Wilson, LLP April 30, 2015

Attorneys who handle accident claims know of the ongoing controversy regarding school bus design and lack of seat belts for the children who ride them. Advocates of seat belt laws, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, believe children not wearing seat belts are more likely to be seriously injured during an accident and have recommended since 2007 that child safety restrain systems be installed in all new school buses.1

Attorneys who handle the claims of children injured from school bus accidents are aware of both sides of the issue concerning seat belts on school buses. They advise that It is important to know the statistics and recommendations about using seat belts versus compartmentalization, which has been the only child-restraint systems on large school buses for more than 30 years.

What Is Compartmentalization?

Compartmentalization in school buses is the design concept of using tall seat backs, padded with energy-absorbing construction covering all metal parts, and spacing that is closer than typically found in passenger vehicles.

Lawyers who handle injury claims advise that testing of this equipment has shown it to be at least as safe as, or sometimes safer than, the use of seat belts in most cases.2 On the other hand, the American Academy of Pediatrics report states that testing does not reveal the same information as has the data from actual accident crashes and advises that compartmentalization as the only restraint system is not completely effective.1

Safety – Compartmentalization vs. Seat Belts

The arguments in favor of continuing the use of compartmentalization in school buses does have some favorable points. While it appears that children sitting on a bus without seat belts would be unsafe in the event of an accident, large school buses are very heavy and can diminish some of the effects of crash forces as opposed to passenger cars and trucks. The high-backed seats place closely together with padded seating has helped to avoid occupant injuries in the following ways:

  • Padded Protection – All surfaces of school bus seats are padded with energy-absorbing material to provide protection, specifically when child occupants are displaced during an accident. The entire bench is well padded, leaving no surfaces that are likely to cause injury. In addition, seat legs are securely anchored.

  • Whiplash Prevention – Whiplash is one of the most common injuries sustained while wearing a seat belt. This injury is almost completely prevented with a compartmentalized seating system because there are no seat belts to cause this type of injury.3

  • Less Space to Move – Compartmentalized seating is close together, acting as a means of containment. There is less room for children to be moved or thrown about in the event of an accident.

  • Seat Belts Can Injure – Even the best seat belts can cause injury, including whiplash. Shoulder harnesses are the best choice for child restraint if properly adjusted. In most cases, school buses only offer lap belts, which are harder to adjust and less effective in preventing injury during an accident.2

The lawyers who handle injury claims advise that there is no easy answer to the debate as to whether compartmentalization alone is enough safety protection for children in school buses. Both sides of the argument have used accident study data to support their respective positions. Until more conclusive studies of actual school bus accidents are presented, experienced accident attorneys who often see these type of cases will continue to look at every accident under its own merits as each case differs depending on the facts. If you have a child who has been injured in an accident involving a school bus, contact an experienced injury claims attorney to discuss your case.

1 American Academy of Pediatrics: School Transportation Safety, 2007

2NHTSA: Vehicle Safety – Seatbelts on School Buses, 2006

3NTSB: Highway Special Investigation Report – Bus Crashworthiness Issues, 2006