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Improvements in School Bus Safety Don’t Go Far Enough, Include Provision That Could Weaken Consumer Protections in State Law

Oct. 15, 2008 

Improvements in School Bus Safety Don’t Go Far Enough, Include Provision That Could Weaken Consumer Protections in State Law

Statement of Joan Claybrook, President of Public Citizen*

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) issued a new rule today that will improve safety on school buses, including requirements for seat belts in small school buses (those under 10,000 pounds), higher seat backs in all new buses and safety latches on seats that can be flipped up or removed without tools.

Unfortunately, our enthusiasm for those improvements is tempered by NHTSA’s inability to resolve the question of whether seat belts should be installed in large school buses. Instead of making a decision based on the extensive research available on this issue, NHTSA left the choice up to state and local governments as long as they comply with NHTSA criteria for integrating the performance of the belts and seats. This decision makes it less likely that manufacturers will have a large enough volume of individual orders from various school districts to produce school buses meeting NHTSA’s criteria.

NHTSA claims there is not enough research, although five major studies have been conducted since 1987 by NHTSA, the National Academy of Sciences and the National Transportation Safety Board on whether belts are appropriate in large school buses. NHTSA’s rule also implies that forcing school districts to make the improvement could be a financial burden on local officials. But this would be far less of an impediment if all school buses manufactured had to comply with NHTSA’s criteria and the agency gave the industry additional lead time with a phase-in period.

But we are particularly disturbed by NHTSA continuing the Bush administration campaign of issuing yet another regulation that seeks to immunize a manufacturer from liability for personal injury caused by faulty products. More than 60 times in recent years, the Bush administration and its appointees have issued a safety standard that asserts that manufacturers whose products comply with federal standards can’t be sued under state law for injuries related to those products.

By inserting these pre-emption clauses into federal regulations, the administration is putting the interests of manufacturers above those of the public.

*Note: Joan Claybrook was administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration from 1977-1981.