States enact school bus seat belt laws, reigniting old debates
Wednesday, November 15, 2017
School buses don't have seat belts. With the lives of our nation's children at stake, to some, this one simple statement is inconceivably short-sighted.
In the last few months, several states have both started discussions as well as enacted laws ensuring that the simple safety measure is present when it counts most. Just how these changes will affect local economies and school districts is another matter.
"Daddy, did you know my school bus doesn't have any seat belts?" my 9-year-old son asked, while peering up from his computer in his bedroom. However, when he and my daughter asked "why not," I found myself in one of those parenting moments where there really isn't a good answer to give.
I honestly didn't know. Why don't school buses, or buses in general, have seat belts?
Apparently, the question has been raised in several states. And while I had always been well aware that school buses — at least the ones I had ridden as a child — didn't have seat belts, my curiosity was newly piqued, but from the perspective of a father.
According to M. Alex Johnson in an article on Today.com, school buses don't have seat belts because "modern school buses are already remarkably safe, and because seat belts don't work the same way in buses as they do cars, research shows. ... Numerous federal and academic studies have concluded that school buses are the safest form of ground transportation of all, in fact. The National Safety Council says they're about 40 times safer than the family car."
Also, because students in buses are actually situated above traffic, most damage done during an accident would be done to the car and the parts of the bus below them. Still, this is little comfort when a child is actually injured or worse in a bus accident.
"The school bus is the only vehicle on the road today for which a lap-shoulder belt is not federally mandated," noted Susan Lynn, who represents District 57 in the Tennessee House of Representatives.
"The argument against school bus lap-shoulder belts wears thin when one considers that there are about 20,000 injuries on buses across the country every year. Incidents like these often force parents to wonder, 'Why do we let our children leave the safety of our family vehicle where their car seat or lap-shoulder belt ensures they are protected for a school bus without any type of restraint system at all?'"
This has led some states to look into ways to avoid such tragedies, and one such way is institute mandatory seat belts.
Most recently, Texas legislators decided to mandate that all new school buses purchased by the state must come equipped with seat belts. The law, which was passed in April, replaces a 2007 law that allowed school districts to apply for state money to fund the changes, if they so desired. Now, the decision is no longer theirs and all school buses that are model year 2018 or later must be equipped with belts.
Cost, other questions
In New Mexico, which is one of the 44 states with no seat belt requirements for school buses, things aren't so cut and dry. In 1999, Albuquerque's mayor vetoed a city ordinance that would have made seat belts in school buses mandatory.
Even with parental backing for such a bill, a lot of city officials and politicians are turned off by the possible costs of such a change. According to Morgan Aguilar with KOB-TV, "It would tack on between $7,000 and $10,000 per bus. Based on injury and accident statistics, school buses are already the safest way for students to get to school."
Unfortunately for the state, things took a tragic turn in 2013 when a bus crashed near Espanola, injuring nine students and killing the driver.
And while Texas will now require seat belts on new buses, the state has decided that it isn't footing the bill. This leaves school districts looking to taxpayers to shoulder the costs for the change.
"Everybody agrees a seat belt makes it a little safer," said Lake Travis ISD Superintendent Brad Lancaster in a KXAN-TV article. "The problem is funding."
One possible solution for LTISD is to have voters approve a $253 million bond that includes $1.3 million for adding seat belts to its entire fleet. The district plans to buy 40 new buses, with seat belts already installed, while adding belts to its older buses currently in use.
Aside from cost, there are other issues that make some wary of a mandate on seat belts in school buses, and some of the issues are worth investigating.
According to Dale Gentry, in an article published in the Standard Banner, there are situations where having children strapped into a buses could have tragic outcomes if they are not able to quickly free themselves, such as in wrecks into bodies of water or rollover accidents.
Tennessee school board members received a report recently from Transportation Director Sherry Dotson and County Commissioner David Seal, listing several unanswered questions about upcoming proposals to mandate seat belts in school buses. According to Dotson, while research has been done on crashes involving trucks, big rigs and buses, similar research on other scenarios such as a fire, a rollover crash or a body of water has yet to be conducted.
The benefits of mandating seat belts on school buses could be surprising. According to Lynn, school bus seat belts could help retain drivers.
"Because students ... are required to buckle up, cases related to discipline issues have reduced by 90 percent. This behavioral improvement has also considerably reduced driver distraction," she said of a school district that has install safety belts.
"Additionally, bullying — which can occur onboard school buses — has decreased substantially. Because officials in this particular district have seen a reduction in bullying, student attendance and retention has also improved. Initially, only a few drivers wanted to drive buses containing restraints; however, as others noticed the behavioral improvements in students as a result of the restraints, they also began requesting buses with lap-shoulder belts. Soon, every driver in this particular district wanted their buses equipped with safety belts."
This is especially important during the current school bus driver shortage that is apparent, not only in Lynn's state of Tennessee, but also nationwide.
The benefits may be numerous and the costs may be daunting, but one thing most aren't talking about is the actual enforcement of the law. While younger children may be easier to convince, just how are bus drivers expected to convince middle and high school children to buckle their seat belts?
There are reports from school districts with bus belt laws that show children become accustomed to wearing them, but the idea that there won't be any pushback seems far-fetched. Still, if the costs can be met comfortably, the benefits of school bus seat belts may outweigh the initial pushback in enforcement.
If lives can be saved, seat belts in school buses may not only be necessary, but inevitable.
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