The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is endorsing three-point seat belts on school buses for the first time.
NHTSA Administrator Mark Rosekind, speaking on Sunday, acknowledged that the agency "has not always spoken with a clear voice on the issue of seat belts on school buses."
In the past, NHTSA has suggested that retrofitting school buses with seat belts was a costly proposition and that buses, sans seat belts, were safe.
"The position of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is that seat belts save lives," Rosekind said. "That is true whether in a passenger car or in a big yellow bus. And saving lives is what we are about. So NHTSA's policy is that every child on every school bus should have a three-point seat belt."
Rosekind also acknowledged that this initial step in the rulemaking process could prove challenging and anticipated some pushback.
The National Association for Pupil Transportation, a school bus industry group, responded that such decisions should be left to cities and states, not federal regulators.
"Absent a federal requirement for belts, NAPT continues to agree with NHTSA that it is most appropriate if the decision to order seat belts on large school buses were left to the states and local jurisdictions," the organization said in a statement.
"States and local school districts are better able to recognize and analyze school transportation risks particular to their areas and identify approaches to best manage and reduce those safety risks," it said. "Local officials are in the best position to decide whether to purchase seat belts, since these officials must weigh a multitude of unique considerations bearing on purchasing decisions, especially when faced with budgetary constraints."
The NHTSA says the change is needed to help keep children safe and to be more consistent in messaging about seat belt safety.
"Is this a change in position? Yes," Rosekind said. "But it is consistent with NHTSA's role as the guardian of safety on America's roads. It is consistent with decades of progress in raising seat belts in the minds of the public from novelty to nuisance to 'the car doesn't move until I hear that click.' Seat belts are icons of safety."