New law calls for seat belts on all school buses

New law calls for seat belts on all school buses

(Calif.) All school buses in California must have seat belts by 2035 under a bill signed Monday by Gov. Jerry Brown.

While data shows that students are actually safer traveling to and from school on a bus than in other vehicles, highly publicized crashes involving school buses in recent years has highlighted areas for improvement.

“California is a leader in transportation safety and the research shows time and time again that seatbelts save lives,” said the bill’s author, Assemblyman Kansen Chu, D-Milpitas. “This deadline would give parents one less thing to worry about when sending their kids to school.”

Last month, the National Transportation Safety Board released its long awaited review of two crashes involving school buses in Maryland and Tennessee in 2016–which combined were the cause of 12 deaths and 37 injuries. In Baltimore, a bus driver had a history of seizures, which had previously affected his driving and was a contributing factor in the crash. The driver in Chattanooga, Tennessee had been flagged for speeding, erratic driving patterns and cellphone use while driving–all of which contributed to that crash.

Among numerous recommendations aimed at strengthening oversight of drivers, safety board officials said that requiring lap and shoulder belts on all sizes of school buses would help mitigate the effects of crashes and improve overall student safety.

Last year, at least 29 states introduced bills that would address seat belts on school buses, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Still, only eight states currently require that school buses be equipped with seat belts, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, and not all of those states have appropriated funding for the cause.

In California, about 12 percent of K-12 students take a bus provided by the school, according to a 2016 report from the non-partisan Legislative Analyst–but that’s still close to 700,000 children–and most of them are in rural areas.

Since 2005, all new school buses purchased or leased for use in California have been required to have a seatbelt under state law.

According to the California Highway Patrol, the number of school buses with passenger restraint systems has steadily increased. From 2007 to 2016, the percentage of buses outfitted with seatbelts jumped from almost 7.5 percent to more than 54 percent.

Despite that progress, however, only about half of all the school buses in California have seatbelts, according to Chu’s office.

In order to address the gap, any noncompliant school bus must be retrofitted with passenger restraint systems at all designated seating positions–or replaced by buses equipped with passenger restraint systems–on or before July 1, 2035.

Legislative analysis of AB 1798 found that a school bus generally has a useful life of about 30 years, and because all buses purchased in California have included seatbelts since 2005, all older school buses that do not have seatbelts will have reached the end of their expected useful life by 2035. Staff did note, however, that there was a possibility some school districts would have used a small number of these older buses beyond their expected useful lives and will need to replace them because of the bill, which would be a significant cost burden.

A separate effort to improve student safety on California school buses was approved in 2016. Following the death of a 19-year-old student with special needs who was left unattended on a school bus for seven hours during a heat wave in Los Angeles, lawmakers adopted mandates on districts to install alarm systems that must be manually turned off at the back of the vehicle.

Local education agencies had until the beginning of this school year to comply, but a bill still pending in the Legislature would give districts an additional six months to meet the requirement.

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