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Arlington, Va. — The new head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is reviewing the government’s longtime opposition to mandating safety belts on school buses and is looking at the issue on commercial buses.

In a Detroit News interview after an event on school bus safety at an elementary school here, NHTSA Administrator Mark Rosekind said he has convened a group within the agency to study the issue that NHTSA has been reviewing since 1977.

“It’s absolutely appropriate for us to look at every possible way we could make things safer,” Rosekind said. “It’s very clear there’s a safety issue, and then there’s an economic one — and that’s the discussion everyone has. .... We’ve already put a group together that is now examining this issue about safety belts on school buses.”

He said the agency is also reviewing its decision not to require existing commercial buses to get safety belts.

School buses remain one of the safest forms of U.S. transportation in the United States. About 25 million U.S. children travel to school on 475,000 buses annually, resulting in about six deaths among passengers, or 0.2 deaths per 100 million miles traveled. By comparison, the fatality rate for schoolchildren killed on bicycles is 12.2 per 100 million miles and for children who walk to school, 8.7 per 100 million miles.

NHTSA in November 2013 finalized rules that take effect in 2016 requiring seat belts on commercial buses that typically travel fixed routes between major cities, to tourist destinations and for other commercial trips.

Seat belts won’t be required on most public transit buses, but some public intercity buses that act like commercial motor coaches will need belts. NHTSA is also excluding from the rules airport shuttle buses that transport passengers to parking lots or rental car facilities.

The rules don’t apply to school buses and don’t affect the 29,000 commercial buses already on U.S. roads. The agency can’t force passengers to wear belts — only states can.

Separately at the event, the Environmental Protection Agency’s director of the Office of Transportation and Air Quality, Chris Grundler, said the government is doing more to get cleaner diesel school buses. “Over half the school buses on the road are nine years old or older and they are not equipped with particle filters,” Grundler said.

The EPA offers rebates on the purchase of cleaner school buses.

dshepardson@detroitnews.com

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