The U.S. National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration denied a petition from safety groups, consumer advocates and doctors to require seat belts in school buses, saying the vehicles are "already very safe."
The cost of adding belts — $5,485 to $7,346 per bus — would outweigh expected benefits, the agency said in a notice that will be published Thursday in the Federal Register.
Requiring seat belts may force school districts to reduce bus service and lead to more students walking or riding in cars, both of which are more dangerous than riding a bus, the agency said.
School buses are one of the safest forms of transportation in the U.S., NHTSA said, with an overall fatality rate almost six times lower than for passenger cars. Fewer than 1% of school transportation-related fatalities occur in school buses, versus 12% walking and 79% in cars, the agency said.
Whether to install belts as an added safety measure should be left to state and local governments, NHTSA said. The cost for each fatality prevented would be $23 million to $36 million, the agency said. Some school districts may be able to afford the more expensive buses, while others would be forced to pare service, it said.
Among companies affected by NHTSA's decision are Daimler's Thomas Built Buses Inc., Navistar International Corp.'s IC Bus, closely held Bluebird Corp. and Berkshire Hathaway Inc.'s Forest River Inc., the maker of Starcraft buses.
The agency rejected arguments by the Washington-based Center for Auto Safety and 21 other groups that seat belts are needed to reduce the number of fatalities and injuries to children.
The groups cited a 1999 recommendation by the National Transportation Safety Board, the U.S. accident-investigation agency, and compared the results of a 2008 Florida crash of a bus with seat belts to a 1996 Arizona crash without belts. One child was seriously injured in Florida while multiple students were ejected in Arizona, including one who was permanently disabled.