Discussions intensify over whether to mandate seat belts for school buses
WASHINGTON, D.C. — More than 15 years ago, Dawn Prescott was riding on a bus that crashed in Omaha, Nebraska.
Prescott was a chaperone for the high school band's trip to a competition. Her 14-year-old son, Benjamin, was sitting a few rows ahead of her.
"Kids were screaming and hurt," Prescott, now 55 years old, remembered. "All I could think of was that I had to get to my son. But when I finally did, I found he was unconscious."
Benjamin, along with two other students and a parent, died as a result of the crash. Twenty-six passengers were injured and so was the driver, who was the only one on the bus wearing a seat belt. Seat belts weren't required on school buses, and the bus didn't have any for passengers.
Since the crash, Prescott, a middle school teacher, has been urging Nebraska lawmakers to require seat belts on new school buses. So far, they haven't, though they're considering it again this year.
Difficulties In Passing Legislation
Similar proposals have been introduced in at least 19 other states, but none has made it into law. Many people question seat belts' effectiveness and whether they are worth the cost.
Deaths from school bus crashes are rare. Nationwide, only six school-age passengers die in bus crashes each year, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), a government group that regulates road safety.
But for some people, there's little question what states should do. "Kids have to be on these buses, and I think we have to do everything we can to protect them," said Connecticut state lawmaker Fred Camillo, a Republican who is sponsoring a bill that would require seat belts on new buses from model year 2022 on.
Other lawmakers aren't so sure. They question whether children can quickly unbuckle and evacuate buses in some emergencies. They also hesitate because of the estimated $7,000 to $10,000 cost of adding seat belts to a new school bus already priced at $80,000 to $120,000 per bus. Adding seat belts to buses already on the road would cost even more.
Few States Have Seat Belt Laws
Only six states have laws requiring seat belts on school buses. They are California, Florida, Louisiana, New Jersey, New York and Texas.
Safety experts agree that school buses are the safest way to transport students. Every day, about 485,000 buses carry more than 25 million children to and from school and related activities in the U.S. Most of the 301 children killed in school bus crashes from 2006 to 2015 were pedestrians or occupants of other vehicles. Only 54 were bus passengers.
School buses can be equipped with one of two types of seat belts: lap belts that go over the waist or three-point lap and shoulder belts that go across the body and that experts say are much safer.
Federal law requires seat belts on school buses weighing 10,000 pounds or less, which are smaller, lighter and built more like cars and vans. They often carry preschoolers or special-needs children.
Big Buses Aren't Required To Have Seat Belts
Federal law doesn't require them on the big yellow school buses that most students ride. The buses themselves are designed to protect riders, so children are kept snug like eggs in a carton. But those features don't necessarily protect children during crashes when riders come out of their seats.
In late 2015, NHTSA launched a nationwide effort for every school bus to have a seat belt for every rider. This is a change from the group's previous position and has influenced others to change their minds as well.
However, the high cost of paying for seat belts remains a major stumbling block to adopting laws. For example, in Maryland, local school systems would need to spend $23.7 million to put three-point seat belts on new school buses from 2019 through 2022.
School Districts Have Financial Concerns
Jessica Jermakian is a senior research engineer at Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, which is a nonprofit research group funded by auto insurance companies. She said that mandating seat belts in buses could create other problems.
School districts without enough money could put off buying new, safer buses, Jermakian said. Or they could try to save money by changing their bus service, forcing more students to walk to school or get a ride.
"That puts children at substantially increased risk of injuries or fatalities if they walk or if their parents are driving them," Jermakian said.
Others worry that making children buckle up could lead to a disaster if they must exit the bus quickly in a fire or the bus is submerged in water.
Dawn Prescott, the Nebraska mother whose son died in the 2001 bus crash, has no doubt about the effectiveness.
"If my son had a seat belt on, he would be here today," she said.