Congress to Again Debate School Bus Seat Belt Legislation

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Congressman Josh Gottheimer of New Jersey announced the upcoming introduction of the Secure Every Child Under the Right Equipment Standards (SECURES) Act of 2018 at the Fair Lawn Board of Education Transportation Depot on May 29, 2018.

UPDATE — June 4 — “The Senate was in recess last week and is just getting back into session later today” Senator Robert Menendez’s press secretary, Steven Sandberg, told School Transportation.” He predicted that he “expect(s) the bill to be introduced soon” by the New Jersey senator.

• Bipartisan school bus seat belt safety legislation was announced last week for both the U.S. House and Senate, officials said at a press conference at the Fair Lawn Board of Education Transportation Depot in New Jersey. The bills would require three-point seatbelts nationwide for school buses.

The Secure Every Child Under the Right Equipment Standards (SECURES) Act of 2018, H.R.5984, is being introduced by first-term Democrat Congressman Josh Gottheimer, he announced on Tuesday, along with New Jersey Republican John Faso. It was referred yesterday to the House Committee on Transportation & Infrastructure, and will also require the Secretary of Transportation to publish a notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM) concerning seat belts on school buses.

All school buses would have to have three-point lap-and-shoulder seat belts, while “innovative measures to ensure that students are actually wearing their seat belts while on school buses,” would be encouraged.

Rep. Gottheimer said that he is writing to officials at the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration and the New Jersey Motor Vehicle Commission, to request that they “study and take immediate action to ensure that all bus drivers are qualified to drive our children.”

Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey added that lawmakers must do everything in their power to ensure students are safe on school buses and that their parents have peace of mind. “The recent tragedy [in New Jersey] only underscores why it’s important to review and upgrade safety standards over time,” he said. “There was a time not too long ago when seat belts weren’t even required in cars, let alone school buses—but we owe it to our constituents to do everything in our power to improve the safety of our roadways. It’s time to make our school buses safer, so no family has to ever endure the heartbreak being felt in Paramus.”

Gottheimer confirmed that he was told the school children in the Paramus school bus crash earlier this month were buckled up in two-point lap belts, as required by New Jersey law. The state is one of four nationwide that require lap belts in school buses, along with Florida, Lousiana and New York. Louisiana’s law, however, requires state legislature funding for school districts to actually require the lap belts be present in school buses. Meanwhile, another four states have laws regarding lap-shoulder seat belts like in passenger vehicles, but two of those states, Arkansas and Texas, have respective stipulations that local voters must either successfully petition the school board to add a levy on the ballot to increase property taxes to pay for the occupant restraints or school boards must hold a public meeting to inform local residents that there are no funds currently available to pay for them.

Gottheimer added that he couldn’t believe only eight states require any type of seat belts. “Every day, nearly 600,000 school buses carry more than 25 million students to and from school, activities, and class trips. Our school buses carry our children more than 5.7 billion miles every single year. And yet we allow millions of kids to ride on school buses without belts?”

It was unclear where Gottheimer got the number of school buses he cited, as both the federal goverment and the American School Bus Council use a figure closer to 480,000 in the U.S. Still, he called that situation, “unconscionable. We must do more to keep our kids safe in the event of the unthinkable.”

He added that the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) reported that from 2000 to 2014 there were an average of 115 fatal crashes involving school buses each year. On average, six passengers die each year in school bus crashes. There were 301 children killed in school bus crashes between 2006 and 2015, but the vast majority of these were passengers in other vehicles.

“We know that seat belts save lives and we know that three-point belts are far more effective than lap belts,” Gottheimer stressed. He cited U.S. Department of Transportation data that, between 1960 and 2012, seat belts saved more than 320,000 lives—more than any other vehicle technology, even airbags. And since three-point seat belts became the global standard in the 1960s, more than a million lives have been saved globally.

He also refered to research by IMMI, one of the leading providers of seat belts in school buses, that lap-shoulder seat belts generally can reduce injury and death by 50 percent.

Gottheimer also pointed out that, in the recent National Transportation Safety Board report on the fatal 2016 school bus rollover bus crash in Chattanooga, Tennessee that killed six young children, the lack of three-point belts contributed to the severity of the crash. In a 2014 bus crash in Anaheim, California, nine students and the driver were injured, but no one died, which NTSB attributed to the use of lap-shoulder belts, which the state has required since 2005.

“This was the first crash in the nation involving a school bus that was equipped with three-point belts in all seating positions, as required by California law,” he added. “The NTSB looked at what might have happened if the two most seriously injured students were wearing only lap belts and found that the outcome would have been much worse.”