Remarks: National Association for Pupil Transportation
Administrator, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration
U.S. Department of Transportation
Sunday, November 8, 2015
As Prepared for Delivery
Leon, thank you for your introduction, and thank you for your participation at the school transportation safety event NHTSA held in July.
President Henry, members of the NAPT board, thank you so much for your invitation to speak today.
Let me begin by thanking all of you, and everyone involved in school transportation, for making possible this simple, under-appreciated fact: School buses are by far the safest way for children to get to and from school. Let’s repeat that: School buses are by far the safest way for children to get to and from school. Kids are safe and parents have peace of mind because of the hard work you do. And that hard work is energized by your commitment to making safety your top priority.
Safety is also our top priority at the Department of Transportation, and certainly at NHTSA. Our mission is to save lives, prevent injuries and reduce the damage done by crashes on America’s roads. And there is no area of highway safety more important to us at NHTSA than the safety of America’s children.
Safe transportation to and from school is a priority because the public we serve demands it of us – we all feel the instinctual need to protect our kids. At NHTSA, we’re loving parents, grandparents, and doting aunts and uncles too. It’s also important because of its significance to another high priority for Secretary Foxx and DOT: The need to more closely connect our transportation system to enhanced economic opportunity. Under Secretary Foxx’s leadership, DOT is dedicated to making sure that our transportation system is a gateway to opportunity and prosperity, and not a roadblock. It’s hard to think of a more important step on the ladder of opportunity than safe, dependable transportation to and from a good education.
Soon after I became NHTSA administrator in January, I began getting questions about what you all know – and I had learned while a Board Member at the NTSB – is the hottest question in school bus safety. Yes, the seat belt question. And we’ll talk a lot about that in a moment. But as I began to discuss the issue with experts within NHTSA and outside, it became clear that school bus safety isn’t just about what happens inside the bus. We lose more children every year as they’re getting to and from the bus than we do once they’re safely inside. We lose too many children who get to school by walking or riding their bikes. And we lose too many children – more than 450 each year – who die in personal vehicles on the way to and from school.
So, beginning with the event in July, NHTSA began working on a comprehensive approach to school transportation safety, one that attempts to address not just one hot topic, but all of them. Today I’d like to share with you the progress we’ve made so far and the work ahead of us.
The first thing we learned is that the foundational elements of our safety programs are an essential piece of the school transportation puzzle. From our efforts to make vehicles safer, to our fight against drunk, drugged, distracted or drowsy driving, to our innovative new program encouraging seat belt use among “tweens,” to our work with state highway safety offices on crafting effective state and local safety programs, to DOT’s enhanced focus on protecting pedestrians and cyclists, student safety begins with roadway safety.
We also compiled a number of specific initiatives NHTSA already has under way in this area. For example, NHTSA and the Federal Highway Administration support the national Safe Routes to School effort. Also, the agency has done significant research on the safety benefits of automated enforcement to reduce speeding in school zones, research that can help state and local officials explain the safety benefits of such measures to their communities. The agency has also worked with NAPT and state school transportation leaders to develop guidance for locating school bus loading zones in safe locations.
But there is more NHTSA can do in this area. Education and awareness are always important components in our efforts, and so by next year we will update the materials available on NHTSA’s school bus safety page. That page, developed with the American School Bus Council, will include new information for parents, kids and drivers on a host of safety issues.
NHTSA also will begin a new analysis of state reporting requirements on crashes involving school buses, to determine how best to gather more useful data on those crashes. We believe this effort could teach us important lessons on how factors such as speed and distraction put students at risk.
Another new area of research will examine how best to combat something we all dread – the driver who refuses to stop when a school bus’s stop arm and flashing lights are out. NHTSA is currently conducting research into the effectiveness of cameras as a deterrent to that unsafe behavior. We are investigating whether cameras, and the combination of cameras and public information programs to highlight their presence, can help us protect students during the loading and unloading process.
These are all important issues and addressing them is essential to our joint goal of saving the lives of our kids. NHTSA is going to move on all these fronts, and we will need movement from all the other players in this arena as well.
But there is one issue that carries elevated significance in the minds of the media, policymakers, and the families we all serve. And that is the issue of seat belts on school buses. It is not new. The data and the arguments have not changed, but my message to you today is that we don’t really need to change the data and arguments. What has to change is all of us.
As NHTSA’s administrator, my primary role is as the leader of our agency. NHTSA has not always spoken with a clear voice on the issue of seat belts on school buses. So let me clear up any ambiguity now: The position of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is that seat belts save lives. 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. NHTSA will seek to use all the tools at our disposal to help achieve that goal, and today I want to launch a nationwide effort to get us there.
Is this a change in position? Yes. 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. And that makes them the single most effective thing we can provide to improve the confidence of parents, policymakers and children. Without seat belts on buses, there is a gaping, obvious hole in our safety measures that sparks questions all of us have to answer. With seat belts, we can build momentum for student pedestrian safety, enhanced enforcement, and more.
I don’t deny that this is a challenge. But I want us to concentrate on this simple, basic statement: School buses should have seat belts. Period. It should be utterly uncontroversial – there is no question that seat belts offer improved safety. Seat belts will save the lives of children who we might otherwise lose in crashes. Seat belts provide the safety those kids deserve. And yet for years, decades even, the conversation about school bus safety has gone right past what ought to happen, and straight to all the reasons it can’t happen. For NHTSA, and I hope for all of you, that ends today.
It is time to stop talking about what we can’t accomplish, time to start making things happen. Because every child on a bus seat without a seat belt means more risk of serious injury to precious cargo. Everyone – NHTSA, state policy makers, local school districts, manufacturers – everyone with a stake in this needs to step up.
NHTSA will step up. Today I’m announcing a series of steps designed to move the nation toward providing this foundational safety item to every child on a school bus.
First, NHTSA will launch a series of research projects to improve our school bus safety data, and particularly data on the safety benefits of seat belts. That includes assessment of the safety benefits in jurisdictions that currently require seat belts, and gathering data on whether seat belt requirements reduce the safety risks from driver distraction.
Second, NHTSA is in contact with safety advocates and looking at the agency’s available resources to determine how NHTSA, in coordination with other entities, might help overcome the financial barriers to making seat belts universally available to students.
Third, this week I will send letters to governors of each of the six states that today require seat belts on school buses. I will ask each of them to nominate one participant from state government and one from a local school district to provide recommendations to NHTSA as to how we can best start a nationwide movement. Among the topics I will ask them to address is how their state and its school districts have overcome the cost hurdles that are so often cited as the reason we can’t provide seat belts to all students. And I will ask them specifically for their advice on whether NHTSA should launch a rulemaking to determine whether to require seat belts on school buses nationwide.
To be clear: I am not announcing a rulemaking today, nor am I prejudging the outcome of rulemaking should NHTSA begin that process. What I am saying is that NHTSA will use all the tools available in seeking to maximize safety for the nation’s schoolchildren. That means our goal is a three-point belt for every child on every bus. I won’t downplay the challenges of the rulemaking process, including the time involved and the dispassionate cost-benefit requirements imposed upon NHTSA as a safety regulator. But NHTSA will seek every avenue to make sure kids get to and from school safely, every time. If we determine that a rulemaking is the best path to get us there, we will try.
And that’s what I’m asking all of you. Try. We all need to end the search for reasons this can’t happen, and begin the search for ways to make seat belts on school buses a reality.
Mandates from NHTSA in Washington are not the only tool available. We’ll use all of our tools, and so should you. Each of your organizations, whether you’re in the public or private sector, needs to ask a simple question: How can we not want every child who rides a school bus to have the protection of a three-point belt? And how can we not work to remove every barrier to that basic safety protection?
What we heard during our event in July from jurisdictions that require seat belts is that for all the concern about cost and student displacement and reduced transportation services, when communities decide that this is a priority, it gets done. So I would ask the state and local authorities and taxpayers who believe cost is prohibitive when it comes to seat belts on school buses to look again.
Each of the manufacturers in this sector deserve a similar challenge: Why not? Why not simply sell buses with seat belts? Why wait for a federal mandate to provide such a basic safety feature?
Ultimately, whenever a safety issue becomes haggling over dollars and cents, safety suffers. This is about children, and we need to focus on them. As safety professionals, and as adults entrusted with the safety of students, we need to be the ones pushing to protect them.
The stakes are too high for us to do anything else. Just a few days ago, just 35 miles from here, dozens of students were making their way home from Caroline High School. The bus they were in was struck by a van, and rolled over. More than two-dozen students were taken to the hospital, thankfully none with life-threatening injuries. But think about the fear those parents felt as they waited to learn their kids were safe. Ask why all of us, together, can’t help that school district and districts across the country make the safest choices for the kids they serve.
I’ll close by returning to that simple principle: Seat belts save lives, and that includes seat belts on school buses. Commitment to a simple principle – that all kids deserve seat belts on their school bus – must guide all of us. Once we take this on as our mission, I believe we will find a way to get it done. Because once we make a commitment to the safety of our children, we have no choice but to succeed. NHTSA is dedicating itself to that commitment, and I hope you will too.
Thank you and I will now take your questions.