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The Push for Mandatory School Bus Seat Belts Appears to Be Caught in Gridlock

In November of 2016, six elementary school children on their way home from school in Chattanooga, TN were killed when the bus driver lost control. The bus was going 20 miles over the speed limit, careened into a utility pole and overturned. The story made national headlines with 31 of the other children suffering injuries, and prompted the question: why don’t all school buses have seat belts?

Over 26 million students ride school buses to school and for other activities throughout the day, according to a Government Accountability Office report. Yet to date, only six states require seat belts on school buses -- and for some it’s only a requirement of newer buses.

Nobody’s debating that seat belts save lives, the biggest issue that seems to be hindering the long-overdue move for seat belts on all buses is money.

The national average cost of transporting a child via a school bus is $971 per student, and it’s risen by 75 percent since 1980. Fewer children are riding school buses than in the past and the increased costs have left school districts with less funds to upgrade their buses. Upgrading a school bus with seat belts doesn't come cheap either. When the Austin, Texas school district upgraded all of their buses with lap shoulder belts in 2012, it cost them $8,000 per bus.

The move to make all newer buses in the state of Texas have mandatory seat belts is a no-brainer for state representative Dade Phelan (R). “We have to have three-point seat belts on all of our school buses,” Phelan told The San Antonio Express. “I can’t believe we’re going to let 1.1 million children get on the roads every day without seat belts.”

Lawmakers and education officials who oppose spending the costly expense of installing an entire fleet of buses with seat belts point to the statistic that buses are still safer for children than other means of getting to school. Todd Watkins, Transportation Director, Maryland's Montgomery County Public Schools is opposed to the extra $1 million a year it would cost to outfit the buses in his district of 100,000 students. The school district has never had a student rider die and Watkins admits it’s a tough stance to defend. “I just don’t think it’s the best use of money right now, because the safety is at such a high level in school buses as it is,” Watkins told PBS.

With an average of just five students a year killed while riding a school bus, compared to the 800 students killed traveling to and from school by other means, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, Watkins argument carries weight.

So far this year, at least 29 states, including Tennessee, have introduced mandatory bus seat-belt bills. "We're going to continue to do work to say, 'Are they the right answer today?'" Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam told reporters. "And if they are, then we'll figure out the financial piece."


Article by Joel Stice, Education World Contributor

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