Seat belts for school buses considered

All newly-purchased school buses in Nebraska would be equipped with seat belts under a bill heard by the Transportation and Telecommunications Committee Feb. 23.

LB373, introduced by Omaha Sen. Robert Hilkemann, would require that buses manufactured and purchased after Jan. 1, 2016, be equipped with lap-shoulder belts if they will be used to transport public school students. The bill also would make seat belt use on school buses mandatory and would require that students be trained on belt use at least twice during the school year.

The measure would not hold school districts liable for injuries sustained from the misuse of, or failure to use, seat belts. School districts still would be permitted to use buses purchased prior to the enactment of the measure that are not equipped with seat belts.

Although studies show that large school buses are the safest way to transport students, about 17,000 children are injured in school bus accidents each year, Hilkemann said. Lap- and shoulder-belt use would eliminate half of injuries sustained by children in bus accidents, he said.

“I’m not saying our buses are unsafe,” Hilkemann said. “I believe we can make them even safer if we add the lap and shoulder belts.”

Dawn Prescott of Fremont, whose son died in a 2001 school bus accident, testified in support of the bill. As a passenger in the bus in which her son died, she recounted that while children were flung throughout the vehicle, only the seat-belted driver remained in his seat.

Improved seat belt technology has made the safety feature so much more affordable and widely available, she said, that school districts should take advantage of it immediately.

“It is not a matter of if another school bus accident will occur, but when,” Prescott said. “As parents, we have a responsibility to place our children in the safest environments possible.”

Mark Richardson of the Nebraska Association of Trial Attorneys also spoke in favor of the bill, saying that the compartmentalization-style protection of buses, featuring high-backed, padded seats, works only in cases of front and rear collisions. In more catastrophic accidents, seat belts protect children better and increase their ability to exit the vehicle quickly.

“An uninjured child has a better chance of getting off of a bus than an injured child,” he said.

John Bonaiuto, executive director of the Nebraska Association of School Boards, testified in opposition to the bill. Large buses have such outstanding safety records, he said, that organizations such as the National Transportation Safety Board do not recommend installing seat belts.

“Research by experts does not support seat belts on school buses,” Bonaiuto said. “We don’t have the data that seat belts will make these buses any safer.”

Rich Casey, director of transportation for Bellevue Public Schools, agreed, saying that a 2014 fire on one of his district’s buses engulfed the rear of the vehicle in four minutes. In his testimony opposing the bill, he said that had kindergarten or elementary children been aboard and in seat belts, they might not have been able to evacuate soon enough to avoid injury.

“Compartmentalization provides the safest means of transporting children on school buses,” he said.

Casey added that installing seat belts can increase the cost of an 84-passenger bus by $16,000 to $18,000, with another $500 per bus needed annually for maintenance.

The committee took no immediate action on the bill.

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