1973: A Turning Point for School Bus Safety in the United States

September 1, 1973

The first U.S. federal safety standard relating to school buses officially took effect. Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (FMVSS) No. 217 was issued by the National Traffic Highway Safety Administration, a part of the U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT), to help better protect the lives of passengers on certain large buses (intercity and charter motor coaches as well as transit buses) by making it easier to access emergency exits in such potentially hazardous situations as collisions, rollovers, fires, and flooding.  FMVSS 217 and other federal safety standards, the first of which took effect in 1967, have been developed for manufacturers with respect to the performance and equipment of their motor vehicles.

The origins of FMVSS 217 can be traced to 1952, when the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) first issued rules for emergency exits for intercity buses able to accommodate at least eight passengers. FMVSS 217, which was based to a great extent on those ICC regulations, required that specified buses have push-out windows and a rear door or roof hatch for emergency evacuations. While pertaining to a cross-section of large buses, FMVSS did not unreservedly apply as well to school buses. This was due in large part to concerns that schoolchildren might seriously injure themselves while trying to climb through push-out windows or use the other emergency exits.    

Nonetheless, FMVSS 217 did stipulate that any school buses already equipped with such exits had to comply with the standard’s requirements for those egresses. For this reason, FMVSS 217 has been widely regarded as the first federal safety standard for the nation’s school buses (albeit in a narrow way) and one that set the stage for subsequent standards more specifically aimed at protecting students who ride on those vehicles. The first round of those standards took effect in April 1977 and included FMVSS 220 (School Bus Rollover Protection); FMVSS 221 (School Bus Body Joint Strength); and FMVSS 222 (School Bus Passenger Seating and Crash Protection).

USDOT’s ever-growing awareness of the need to better safeguard children on board school buses had been underscored by John A. Volpe, who served as U.S. secretary of transportation, in a letter to the New York Times that was published in October 1970. “None of us should be satisfied until the objective of strong, sound standards for school bus safety is finally achieved,” wrote Volpe. “We are taking far-reaching steps to this end, in particular concentrating on improved crash-worthiness which we believe to promise the greatest potential for saving lives in the event of school bus accidents.” Volpe went on to cite emergency exits and doors as among the priorities for USDOT when it came to enhanced school bus safety measures.

Photo Credit: PRA (licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license at https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/deed.en)

For more information on FMVSS 217 and other U.S. federal safety standards pertaining to school buses, please check out https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED083678.pdf and http://www.coachbuilt.com/bui/w/ward_body/ward_body.htm

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