Lawmakers consider school bus seat belt mandate

Lawmakers consider school bus seat belt mandate

(Calif.) After closing a loophole in a highway safety law that allowed bus passengers to ignore seat belts if available, lawmakers are set to consider a bill this spring that would require all school buses to be equipped with seat restraints by 2028.

AB 1798 by Assemblyman Kansen Chu, D-San Jose, covers any school transportation vehicle that serves students attending a public or private school, including both primary and secondary sites.

While most districts in California operate home-to-school services for some portion of their students, the state does not require it, in contrast to many states. The decision to provide transportation to students is made locally and, because of the expense, most districts opt to provide minimal coverage as dictated by either federal or other state laws.

According to a 2016 report from the non-partisan Legislative Analyst most students–about 54 percent–rely on a private automobile to get to and from school, while another 28 percent ride a bike.

Only about 12 percent of K-12 take a bus provided by the school. That’s still a sizable number of children–close to 700,000–and most of them are in rural areas. Indeed, about 100 of the state’s 1,024 districts transport more than half their students on school buses each day.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, school bus travel is relatively safe, where only six passengers die each year in accidents. That is far lower than the estimated 2,000 children killed each year in private vehicle crashes.

That said, there are still substantial risks.

Chu noted in his initial bill text that more than 15,000 lives are saved every year nationally because drivers and passengers involved in accidents wear seat belts, according to the National Highway Safety Administration.

Federal officials also report that between 2003 and 20012, a total of 174 students died in accidents involving school transportation vehicles.

A 2006 study from the Columbus Children’s Hospital found that 20,800 children under the age of 18 were occupants in a school bus involved in a crash in Ohio between 2002 and 2004.

Currently, six states require that school buses be equipped with seat belts while at least 32 other states have considered doing so since 2007, according to the NCSL.

Chu’s bill would set a deadline of Jan. 1, 2028 for all school buses to have seat belts.

Under the bill, a “passenger restraint system” is one that either meets federal standards or one that has been certified as meeting federal requirements.

Operators are defined as a “person or public or private entity that owns or operates a school bus,” and may comply with the mandate by doing either of the following before Jan. 1, 2028:

  • Retrofitting any noncompliant school bus with passenger restraint systems at all designated seating positions.
  • Replacing any noncompliant school bus with one that is equipped with passenger restraint systems at all designated seating positions.

Last summer, following a number of high-profile crashes involving public bus operators in California and elsewhere, lawmakers here closed a loophole in federal safety standards by requiring passengers to wear seat belts in vehicles equipped with them.

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