Protection for Bus Makers Over Our School Children

Posted on October 18, 2008

NHTSA, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, issued new rules this week that will improve the nation’s 474,000 school buses. Seat and shoulder belts will be required on small school buses. The requirement will also change seat backs making them four inches higher to 24 inches in all new buses.

Seats must also come equipped with safety latches that can be flipped up or removed without resorting to special tools. That’s the good news.

But there is a huge gap here. What about the large school buses that most children ride in? NHTSA has not resolved that question, despite the fact that all of the research shows that children would be made safer.

Instead NHTSA sets standards for seat belts on large school buses. Five major studies over the past decade have shown seat belts are needed on large school buses. But the Secretary of Transportation, Mary E. Peters said that putting seat belts on larger buses can limit capacity and force more students to walk or ride in cars.

“The last thing we want to do is force parents to choose other, less safe ways of getting their children to school,” she said.

Putting seat belts where people sit will make them less safe? NHTSA says more kids are actually hurt around school buses than inside them, but seat belts on school buses would impact about 1,900 crash injuries each year.

Public Citizen doesn’t like the omission of seat belts from large buses and Joan Claybrook, who was the administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration from 1977-81, says Public Citizen objects to NHTSAs plans to immunize manufacturers from personal injury liability.

See page 123 of the rule, “State requirements imposed on motor vehicle manufacturers including sanctions imposed by State tort law, can stand as an obstacle to the accomplishment and execution of a NHTSA safety standard,” the rule says.

In other words, federal law trumps a state product liability lawsuit.

So in the final days of the Bush administration we are seeing a spike in pre-emption language and these new school bus rules are the latest.

Once again, if a manufacturer follows the federal standard, they are shielded from lawsuits for injuries related to that product. That is good news for the manufacturers but very bad news for our school children.

Lawsuits, despite what you may think of them, are an American right provided by our Seventh Amendment as a remedy to be found in the courts, and they provide incentive for manufacturers to do all they can to keep us safe. Shielding manufacturers from liability is inappropriate when you are talking about school children.

Tell your federal lawmakers you do not support federal pre-emption.

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