For years now, the bus manufacturing industry has repeatedly defeated lawsuits focused on the lack of seatbelts on commercial buses. Federal highway safety regulations have never mandated that seat belts are required on passenger buses, and the industry has relied on that lack of regulation to shield itself from liability in bus wreck cases. That comfort came to a crashing halt this week, however, when a Waco jury ordered a bus manufacturer to pay $17.5 million in damages for injuries and deathes resulting from a 2003 bus accident on I-35.
19 passengers were injured and seven were killed on Valentines Day of 2003. Five of the dead were elderly. Four of those five were ejected from the bus. None were wearing safety belts, because they were not present.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has repeated several times that safety belts on buses would provide no safety benefit. They contend that heavily padded, high-back seats are effective shock absorbers, and that seat belts might actually cause greater injury in the event of a bus crash. The court decision is groundbreaking because the Waco jury essentially held that federal industry regulators are wrong.
The decision is a shock to the bus industry, which fears now that a tidal wave of litigation will surely follow. A spokesperson for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration acknowledged that the agency is aware of the verdict, but said they have no plans to change its position on seat belts in buses.