Passengers at a Greyhound bus terminal.  

Passengers at a Greyhound bus terminal.   Credit: Sipa USA via AP/Stephen Zenner / SOPA Images

ALBANY — While seat belts have become common in large charter buses such as the one involved in the Sept. 21 fatal crash involving Farmingdale High School band members, few passengers use them and no state or federal law requires them to be used.

Nationwide, all large buses for hire, often called motor coaches, built after November 2016 must have lap-and-shoulder seat belts. In addition, many bus companies, including Greyhound Lines, retrofitted older buses with seat belts following multimillion dollar settlements in lawsuits brought by passengers hurt in crashes.

But for now, there is no state legislation to require passengers to use seat belts on motor coaches, as there has been for cars and trucks since 1984 and for air travel since 1971. One bill in the State Legislature that would require passengers to use seat belts is limited to school buses.

“It’s definitely something the committee wants to take up,” said Assemb. Fred Thiele (I-Sag Harbor) and a member of the Assembly Transportation Committee. Thiele said he has spoken to committee Chairman William Magnarelli (D-Syracuse) about addressing safety measures as a result of the Orange County crash

WHAT TO KNOW

  • While seat belts have become common in large charter buses, few passengers use them and no state or federal law requires them to be used.
  • Nationwide, all large buses for hire, often called motor coaches, built after November 2016 must have lap-and-shoulder seat belts.
  • But for now, there is no state legislation to require passengers to use seat belts on motor coaches. 

Advocates for intercity bus travel in Albany and in Washington have long complained that motor coaches get less political attention than airlines, trains, city and school buses, taxis and ride-sharing services such as Uber. 

Federal regulators note that although the 35,000 motor coaches on the road nationwide — which carry 700 million passengers a year — are among the safest modes of transportation, crashes often result in serious injury and death.

From 2000 to 2020, an average of 246 buses were involved in fatal accidents resulting in 284 deaths and 25,714 injuries each year, according to federal transportation safety agencies.

The Regency Transportation Ltd. bus that carried the Farmingdale band this month had lap-and-shoulder seat belts, the state Department of Transportation said. That bus was built in 2014, but the Nesconset-based bus line chose to install the seat belts in the bus, state records show. Two adults died in the crash and several students were injured, some of whom were ejected from the bus.

Seat belt use in the crash is expected to be part of the continuing investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board.

In 2013, when Congress required seat belts to be installed on new buses beginning in 2016, the National Highway Safety Administration acknowledged that riders might not use the belts.

A study by the University of Massachusetts Transportation Center of bus ridership in parts of New England and New York state found average seat belt use on motor coaches was 6.7% in 2019, dropping to 3.3% in 2021. 

California is one of the few states that mandates passengers use seat belts on motor coaches. Violation of the state law could cost passengers $20 or $50 for repeat offenses. Under the law, all children 2 years old or older must use seat belts on motor coaches. Parents, trip chaperones and bus companies also could face sanctions.

The University of Massachusetts study shows that the California law has made some progress. Just over a year after the state law was passed, use of seat belts on the buses was five times higher — at 37.8% — in California than in New England and New York, the study showed.

“Unfortunately, many people have a false sense of security when riding in a bus and don’t think they need to buckle up,” said Cathy Chase, president of the Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, which lobbied for the 2013 federal law requiring seat belts on the buses. “Tragically this has resulted in far too many preventable deaths and injuries … Belts are your first line of defense in a crash, but they only work if they’re used.”

The American Bus Association, which lobbies for companies, is also pushing for greater compliance by passengers and offers a safety video and information cards to any company that asks for them.

“Like any vehicle trip, seat belts are provided to keep passengers safe,” said Peter Pantuso, president and CEO of the association. “Unfortunately, we cannot force passengers to wear seat belts.”

The University of Massachusetts study found that signs and audio or video messages from the bus company — already used successfully by airlines — increased seat belt use.

From the perspective of a bus company and bus driver, requiring passengers to use seat belts or even knowing if seat belts are being used is difficult at best, said James Wang. He is co-owner of the Peoria Charter Coach Co. in Illinois, a former driver and a frequent writer on bus safety for the trade magazine Bus & motor coach News.

“You, as a driver, can’t do it and it would be unsafe to,” Wang told Newsday. “The passenger is pretty much left to what they want to do.”

His bus company shows a video saying seat belts are there for those who choose to use them and other safety messages, including telling passengers not to walk around while the bus is in motion. He notes a driver is the only company employee on a bus, and can’t monitor use of seat belts the way flight attendants can. He said a law also would be hard for police to enforce, because police can’t see inside the high cabins and tinted windows of buses from the road.

“We did our part,” Wang said. “The rest is up to them to listen.”

“It’s a topic that has come up over and over,” Wang said. “I know that motor coaches are the safest mode of transportation … these things don’t happen a lot, so nobody has really made it an issue.”

He then considered the horrific crash last week.

“Then again … with crashes like this,” Wang added, “you have to wonder what the next law will be.”

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