Frequently Asked Questions
NOW AVAILABLE: School Transportation Law,
a Guide for Connecticut
. Click here for details.

Table of Contents

More Bus Questions
Contact Us For Other Questions


How many students can sit on a school bus seat?

There is no absolute number. Under Connecticut law, the maximum number of students that can be transported in a school bus corresponds to the seating capacity designated by the manufacturer of the bus. Thus, a 72-passenger bus can carry 72 students, regardless of their age or size. Federal regulations govern how manufacturers determine seating capacity, using a 15-inch block for each designated seating position and rounding up to the nearest whole number. Most school bus seats are 39 inches wide; dividing 39 by 15 produces 2.6, which rounds up to three seating positions per seat.

Clearly that formula is not appropriate for all students. While state law does not limit the number of students per seat, it does require that aisles and exits be free of obstruction. This means that students cannot be hanging off the seats into the aisles, and their belongings cannot block emergency exits. A further consideration is that the passive restraint system called compartmentalization works only for students who are completely contained within the seating system; a student who is partially off the seat is not fully protected. Therefore, the number of students that can safely sit on a school bus seat is the number that fits entirely on the seat.

Back to Top

Where can I find information on school bus safety?

If you're looking for more detail on one of these questions, or for information on an issue we haven't covered in our web site, you can contact the COSTA office, or click on one of the links we've provided to other sites. If the information you want is specific to your town or school district (e.g. about a bus stop), you can contact the school's transportation coordinator or the school bus company's local manager.

Back to Top

Why don't school buses have seat belts?

In considering this question, we need to make a distinction between lap belts only, which is the system most often used in school buses, and the three-point lap/shoulder safety restraint system, which has recently become available for school bus seats.

If the question refers to lap belts, the answer is relatively simple. Lap belts are not an effective restraint system, and they can cause injury to young children. You may hear many other concerns when discussing school bus seat belts, such as misuse of the belts by students, cost, building the seat belt usage habit, maintenance, etc., but these issues are all peripheral to the essential safety question: Are children at less risk of injury in school buses with lap belts or in school buses without lap belts?

All of the primary research that has been done on this question, including that of the National Transportation Safety Board, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, and the Transportation Research Board of the National Research Council, has concluded that school buses without lap belts offer excellent protection to occupants in crashes by virtue of their superior construction and the compartmentalized seating standard. This standard, which is unique to school buses, protects passengers by placing them between high-backed, well-padded seats that are designed to absorb crash forces. The effectiveness of compartmentalization is evident when you consider the statistics: Of some 5500 children under the age of 18 who die annually in motor vehicle crashes nationwide, only 7 are in school buses.

Compartmentalization works this way: When a school bus crashes into an object, the unrestrained child slides forward on the seat, hitting the back of the seat in front of him, first with his knees, then with his trunk and shoulders. The seat back gives a little, absorbing the crash forces and distributing them so that there is no concentration of trauma in one part of the body. This system works so well that passengers in extremely severe accidents have escaped serious injury. (School bus occupant fatalities usually occur only when the victim is in the direct line of impact with a heavier vehicle, such as a train or tractor-trailer. In those cases, no restraint system would protect the passenger.)

But look what happens when you add a lap belt to the seat. Because the child's hips are now secured, he can't slide forward. Instead, his trunk and head fly forward, pivoting over the lap belt, and hitting the seat back in front of him. This concentrates all the force of the impact on the child's head and neck, resulting in high HIC (head impact criteria) values, and increased trauma to the head and spine. In addition, because a child's pelvic area is still undeveloped, the lap belt does not stay anchored below the iliac crests as it does in an adult. As the belt rides up on the abdomen, it puts increased pressure on internal organs, creating serious abdominal trauma. A biomedical engineer from Duke University told the National Transportation Safety Board that the trauma produced by a lap belt when a 60 pound child is involved in a 30 mph accident is worse than riding over the child with the rear wheel of a car.

So the answer to the question about lap belts only appears to be that children are at less risk of serious injury in school buses without them, because lap belts are both ineffective and dangerous.

Lap/shoulder restraints are different, however. This system, similar to the ones in automobiles, works with compartmentalization and, according to NHTSA, could provide some additional benefit to occupants of school buses, if it is consistently and properly used. But the federal government does not believe that a mandate for lap/shoulder belts is justified, because the safety benefits are very small and the cost is high. Furthermore, there are several potential negative factors, such as children wearing the shoulder portion improperly, that could mitigate the benefits of the restraints and result in a net loss of safety.

Local school districts that are considering whether to equip their new school buses with lap/shoulder restraints are necessarily mindful of budgetary constraints and their need to balance incremental safety improvements with fiscal responsibility. We want to emphasize that school buses without restraints are still safer than any other current mode of transportation—whether it’s walking to school, riding bikes, or traveling in parents’ cars. A study by the National Academy of Sciences found that 800 children die each year during school transportation hours, and only 5 of them are school bus passengers. The biggest mistake that districts could make is to reduce the number of students who qualify for transportation in order to afford new buses with restraint systems. Any possible benefit of the restraints would be completely overshadowed by the increased risk to students who were denied school bus transportation. NHTSA's report to Congress on their school bus occupant protection study STN Online's The Great Seat Belt Debate (everything you ever wanted to know, and more)

Back to Top

Who should I contact if I have a problem with transportation?

The place to start is at your school district's transportation office. Most larger districts have a transportation coordinator, but in smaller districts transportation may be handled by the business manager or the assistant superintendent. If you call the administration office, they will send you to the proper person. In some cases, particularly if the problem involves a driver's actions, you should contact the transportation company directly. The local terminal will generally be listed in your phone book. If you don't know the company name or can't find a phone number, you can contact the COSTA office or call the school administration office and ask for the information. When you call the company, ask to speak to the terminal manager or to the safety director. Be sure to have all the facts, and to present them clearly and dispassionately. Understand that the administrator or manager will probably need some time to investigate your problem, but ask when you can expect to hear from him or her.

If your problem involves lack of transportation or a bus stop, the state provides a procedure for you to follow if you are not satisfied with the response you receive from your initial phone call:

  1. You must send a written request for a hearing to the Board of Education;
  2. The Board must hold a hearing within ten days of receiving your request;
  3. The Board must send you a written finding within ten days of the hearing;
  4. If you are still not satisfied, you can ask for a transcript of the hearing and appeal the finding to the State Board of Education.

Be aware that the State Board will not overturn the local Board unless they find that the Board's action was arbitrary, capricious or unreasonable. Generally, if the local Board acted according to its written policies concerning the provision of transportation, the State Board will uphold the ruling.

If you are concerned about the safety of a bus stop, we suggest bringing together a group to review it. The group should include representatives of the transportation company, the school administration, the local police traffic division or highway patrol unit, the town highway department (if the stop is on a town road) or state DOT (if on a state road). Sometimes the State Department of Motor Vehicles will send an inspector to review the stop (contact Sergeant Green at the Commercial Vehicle Safety Division in Wethersfield, 860-263-5441).

If your child requires specialized transportation, the place to start is in the special education office of the school district. Transportation is a related service for students requiring special education, and any extraordinary service, such as specialized equipment, medical attention, or behavior modification, necessary to ensure a safe ride to school should be noted in the child's individualized educational program (IEP). There is a continuum of transportation service for students with disabilities, from riding the regular route school bus with no modification to individual transportation in a specially-equipped van with an aide. In most cases, the first option will be the least restrictive environment appropriate for the child. We suggest that you ask for a transportation representative to attend your child's planning and placement team (PPT) session to ensure that your child receives safe and efficient transportation.

Sometimes a child who is not identified as requiring special education nonetheless needs specialized transportation because of a mobility impairment or a medical condition. Even though this is not a related service of special education, the school district is required under federal law (Sec. 504 of P.L. 93-112) to provide equal access to school and any nonacademic or extracurricular activites to students with disabilities. Note that Section 504 does not, however, apply to temporary conditions, such as a broken leg. In such a case, the school district or the bus company may be able to make an accomodation, but is not required to.

Back to Top

What is the difference between a school bus and a van?

The obvious answer is that a school bus is yellow and has flashing lights, but that answer is incomplete, at best. By federal definition, a school bus is a vehicle that is designed to carry more than ten persons, including the driver, and is used to transport students to and from school and school-related activities. Under federal law, no vehicle that meets this definition can be sold unless it also meets all the federal safety standards for a school bus. These standards (which include the stop arm, but do not include yellow paint) are stricter than for any other type of vehicle and help to make school buses the safest vehicles on the road. Congress enacted this law in 1974 to ensure that students receive the highest standard of safety when traveling to and from school or on school activity trips.

Large vans, known in the industry as nonconforming vans, are vehicles designed to carry more than ten persons, including the driver, that do not meet the federal safety standards for school buses. These 12 and 15 passenger vehicles are basically cargo vans with seats installed. They are built to lower safety standards than even cars and station wagons, and the drivers of these vehicles, unlike the drivers of school buses, are not required to hold a commercial drivers license.

If it is illegal to sell nonconforming vans for school transportation, why do so many schools use them? The reason is that the federal government, through NHTSA, regulates the manufacture and sale or lease of new vehicles. But it leaves to the states the authority to regulate the use of vehicles. In Connecticut, it is legal to use a nonconforming van for school activities, though it is not legal to use it for home to school transportation. Therefore, if a school or a carrier can get hold of a 12 or 15 passenger van, either by purchasing a used one (which is not controlled by NHTSA) or by illegally purchasing a new one, it can legally use the vehicle to transport students on activity trips.

NHTSA is cracking down on dealers who knowingly sell nonconforming vans to schools or contractors for transporting students, even in states where the use of the van is legal. In addition, schools and carriers who use nonconforming vans assume a much greater liability than they do when they use school buses.

You may hear someone use the term "school van." This can be very confusing, because it is not clear whether the speaker means a small school bus built on a van chassis, or a nonconforming van used to transport students. If the vehicle is painted school bus yellow and has alternately flashing amber and red lights and a stop arm, it is a school bus--even if it only holds 12 or 16 passengers and is shaped like a van. While this vehicle is the same size as the van, it meets a much higher safety standard.

To further confuse the issue, some schools use minivans for student transportation. Because these vehicles are designed to carry fewer than ten passengers, including the driver, they do not fall under federal school bus regulations. It is legal both to buy and to use them for transporting students.

Back to Top

What does it take to become a school bus driver?

School bus drivers are professionals who are subject to higher standards in training and licensing than any other drivers on the road. Before becoming a school bus driver, a person must

  1. Apply for a commercial driver's license (CDL) with a passenger (P) endorsement. Study for the knowledge tests required for this license. The knowledge tests cover laws, regulations, and safe driving practices.
  2. After passing the knowledge tests, begin training for the skills tests. The three skills tests cover inspection of the vehicle, special maneuvers on a closed course, and a road test. It takes an average thirty hours of training to master the skills in a school bus.
  3. Get a comprehensive physical examination according to state or federal standards.
  4. Obtain two sets of fingerprints, one for a state police criminal record check and one for an FBI criminal record check.
  5. Undergo a motor vehicle record check. The applicant must also have his name checked agaijst the Connecticut Sex Offender Registry. 
  6. After mastering the driving skills, begin school bus training. A minimum of ten hours is required on such subjects as safe loading and unloading, railroad crossings, emergency procedures, and student management.
  7. Take the skills tests with a motor vehicle inspector.
  8. After passing all tests and record checks, receive a CDL with P and S (school) endorsements.
  9. Submit to pre-employment urinalysis drug testing, and agree to random drug and alcohol tests.
  10. Enter company and school district training to learn routes, policies, and additional student management training.

Of course, these are the formal requirements. It also takes patience, commitment, responsibility, a love of children, and a sense of humor to be a school bus driver. In return, school bus drivers get affection from their passengers, gratitude from parents, glares from other motorists, and pride in knowing that they are an important cog in the wheels of education. They also get summers and school holidays off, and the privilege of taking their preschoolers to work with them. All in all, it's a tough job with a lot of rewards. If you'd like more information on becoming a school bus driver, and where in your area to apply for free training, contact the COSTA office.

Back to Top

Are car seats required for preschoolers in school buses?

Connecticut's child restraint law specifically exempts school buses and all other buses from the requirement to secure children under the age of four, weighing less than forty pounds, in a child restraint seat.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has recently developed guidelines for the safe transportation of preschoolers on school buses. The guidelines, which are not law but represent best practices, recommend that all preschoolers be transported in federally approved child restraint systems, either safety seats or booster seats. The child should be properly secured in the restraint, and the restraint should be properly secured in the vehicle. To determine that a child restraint system is federally approved, look for a label which says "Meets FMVSS."

Note that the exemption in state law applies only to buses. School transportation vehicles (STVs) such as vans, cars, and station wagons, are subject to the child restraint law. Any child who is six years of age and under, or weighing less than sixty pounds must be secured in a child restraint system.  Any person who transports a child seven years of age or older and weighing sixty or more pounds shall either provide and require the child to use an approved child restraint system or require the child to wear a seat safety belt.

Back to Top

Phone 860/953-2782
Fax 860/953-8404
Mail COSTA, 171 Market Square Suite #209, Newington, CT 06111



Copyright © COSTA. All rights reserved.