Janesville School District is currently the only school system in Wisconsin that requires the use of lap and shoulder seat belts on yellow buses. But if state Sen. Tim Cullen gains enough support for pending legislation that would mandate occupant restraints on new school buses, that may change.
Last week Cullen began circulating the language for potential co-sponsors, as the deadline other senators to sign on is this Wednesday. The bill is similar to a policy he established while a member of the Janesville School Board. Since then, the school district has bought 20 new school buses equipped with seat belts.
Only school buses that are manufactured after the effective date of the bill would be required to have seat belts. School buses already in operation would not have to be retrofitted, which can be costly. The proposal also creates a grant program to help school districts defray the cost of equipping new school buses with seat belts.
“The fact that we are required to wear seat belts in cars, yet allow our children to roll down the road at 55 miles per hour without them is completely outrageous to me,” Cullen said.
Under federal law, only the smaller, Type A school buses must be equipped with seat belts. Standard-size school buses are exempt. In 1987, New York was the first state to pass legislation requiring two-point lap seat belts on school buses, followed by New Jersey, Louisiana and Florida. Subsequently, California and Texas passed laws requiring three-point, lap-shoulder belts.
Last month a school bus crash in Rockton, Ill., caused the bus to tip on its side after it collided with a car. Five students were injured. The bus was not equipped with seat belts.
“Schoolchildren are injured every year in school bus crashes,” continued Cullen. “It only makes sense to me that we can prevent more injuries by requiring seat belts, especially three-point lap and shoulder safety belts that are required in cars.”
In July, the NTSB addressed the protection afforded by seat belts on school buses while presenting findings from its investigation into two fatal school bus crashes in 2012, the first in Chesterfield, N.J., and the second in Port St. Lucie, Fla. The safety board stated that while school buses remain the safest vehicles on the road, three-point lap and shoulder belts provide even greater protection.
“This bill will improve the safety of our children while they are being transported to school and other activities,” Cullen concluded.