Even before the Kansas Legislature began its session this week, a bill was filed that would require new school buses in Kansas to have seat belts on every seat.
House Bill 2008 was pre-filed by State Rep. Susie Swanson, R-Clay Center.
The bill comes on the heels of a deadly school bus crash that killed six elementary school students in Chattanooga, Tenn. on Nov. 21. Authorities have blamed the bus driver for the accident.
Since that crash, Tennessee is considering legislation that would require seat belts in school buses. Six states already have the requirement.
If passed, the bill would lead to higher costs for the purchase of school buses. According to Russell Miller, assistant superintendent of finance for USD 373, the bill could add upwards of $10,000 to the cost of a new school bus.
The district purchases about one new bus every school year, if the budget permits.
“You can get 20 to 25 years out of a bus,” Miller said. “We don't want to get into a bind where we have to replace a whole slew of busses at one time. … Sometimes we may get one coming off a lease, and with those you are in the $90,000 ballpark for a 71 passenger bus.”
He pointed out that due to federal regulation, all Head Start students are transported by buses that have a harness installed for students.
The bill, as written, requires all buses purchased after Jan. 1, 2018, to have seat belts on all seats. It does not require the retrofitting of buses already on the road. That is a key point to local administrators, as retrofitting a bus costs about $25,000 per bus — in addition to adding seat belts, the entire seat must be replaced.
However, the costs are still adding up.
"The school bus seat belt bill that was filed earlier in the week could cost Newton School District roughly $250,000 if passed. The district could purchase three new 72-passenger buses for that amount,” wrote Shiela Zwahlen, director of transportation for USD 373. “The budget is already tight and gets tighter every year. In my opinion this would be an unnecessary expenditure because of the design of school buses.”
In 2015, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration came out in favor of seat belts in school buses. However, the National Transportation Safety Board, school buses use a unique technology called compartmentalization. Compartmentalization is a passive occupant protection system. School bus seats, made with an energy-absorbing steel inner structure and high, padded seat backs, are secured to the school bus floor. Students are protected within the seating compartment much like eggs in a carton.
“While it appears that children sitting on a bus without seat belts would be unsafe in the event of an accident, large school buses are very heavy and can diminish some of the effects of crash forces as opposed to passenger vehicles,” Zwahlen said. “... School buses are the safest form of transportation. According to the U.S. Department of Transportation 71 percent of student fatalities occur in private vehicles, 21 percent of student fatalities are walking or biking to school and only 8 percent of student fatalities are in school buses."
The National Transportation Safety Board investigated school bus crashes in which children were injured and killed. According to that study, those accidents were typically side-impact crashes or high-speed rollovers. In these accidents, compartmentalization was not enough to prevent all injuries. According to the NTSB, for some of the children involved, a seat belt could have lessened their injuries or even saved their lives.
Following that investigation, the NTSB recommended when new school buses are bought, the purchased vehicles should have seat belts.
According to the National Highway Transpiration Administration, seat belts have been required on passenger cars since 1968. Forty-nine States and the District of Columbia have enacted laws requiring the wearing of seat belts in passenger cars and light trucks. The NHTSA requires small school buses — (with a gross vehicle weight rating of 10,000 pounds or less — must be equipped with lap and/or lap/shoulder belts at all designated seating positions.