The scene of the deadly crash involving a charter bus...

The scene of the deadly crash involving a charter bus carrying Farmingdale High School students on I-84 in Orange County in 2023. Credit: Howard Simmons

Every large charter bus built after November of 2016 must have seat belts. It's required by federal law.

But in an absurd twist, no one's required to use them.

So, often, children and adults travel by bus without any safety belt.

And that leads to tragedy.

The horrific crash involving a charter bus carrying Farmingdale High School marching band members led to the deaths of two adults, while dozens of students were injured. A preliminary investigation showed several occupants were ejected from the bus, and initial litigation claimed the school district did not require students to wear seat belts.

NTSB studies have indicated that rollovers are the most common cause of death in charter bus crashes, and that using seat belts reduces the likelihood of death by 77%.

Requiring the use of seat belts in charter buses, then, should be a no-brainer. A bill making its way through the State Legislature, would do exactly that. Lawmakers should pass it — and Gov. Kathy Hochul should sign it. 

But enforcement is key — and that's tricky when it comes to buses that often have tinted windows and are higher off the ground, making it hard for traffic officers to gauge whether occupants were belted without boarding the bus and checking.

Such random checks by police will be necessary to make sure bus operators and drivers take the law seriously. Additional signage on buses, and perhaps an announcement at the start of each journey, would help. And the school, camp or religious group in charge must make sure passengers buckle up. 

Additionally, the new legislation should be paired with a public awareness campaign to promote seat belt wearing by children and adults. One of the bill's sponsors, Assemb. William Magnarelli of Syracuse, told the editorial board he saw such educational efforts as key to the legislation's success.

And the state shouldn't stop with that. School buses face the same troubling dichotomy — they are required to have safety belts, but no one is forced to wear them. For school buses, it's up to the school district to decide whether passengers are required to wear seat belts — and few bother with such requirements.

School buses often travel shorter distances, at slower speeds. But safety restraints remain important. Here, too, there's state legislation, but it's been introduced seven times since 2009 — and never moved forward.

It should. Just as wearing a seat belt in cars is now ubiquitous, so too must it become for buses. Legislating it is the first step to changing attitudes.

The proposed school bus legislation gets even more specific, requiring the driver to make “reasonably sure” passengers are wearing a safety belt and to announce “Everybody fasten your seat belt” before a bus is in motion. 

It's the right message. Even before both bills become law, it's a message worth heeding every time you board a bus.

MEMBERS OF THE EDITORIAL BOARD are experienced journalists who offer reasoned opinions, based on facts, to encourage informed debate about the issues facing our community.


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