A bill to amend current Texas law requiring lap-shoulder seat belts on school buses sits on Gov. Greg Abbott’s desk. If signed, it will go into effect this Sept. 1.
After passing the Senate less than a month earlier, SB 693 passed the Texas House on May 19. It amends a law passed in 2007 that requires school districts to add three-point restraints to each new school bus purchase, this time around for model-year 2017 or newer. School activity buses, multifunction school activity buses and school-chartered buses also apply.
But school districts may vote in a public-meeting setting that their budgets cannot support the incremental costs of lap-shoulder belts, which on average can add around $7,000 to the purchase price. The current law on the books established an iniitial grant project to assist districts in funding the occupant restraint systems and promised future appropriated funds from the state legislature. But few school districts applied for the grant, and the appropriations never came to fruition.
That didn't stop some larger districts like Austin ISD and Houston ISD from implementing the seat belts.
But Marisa Weisinger, the executive secretary for the Texas Association for Pupil Transportation, said some districts, especially small and rural ones, will likely opt out of the new legislation because they already have few resources to purchase new school buses. Instead, they are struggling to keep their current fleet upgraded with the latest safety features. New and more expensive purchases could reduce bus services for these districts.
In a 2015 position paper, TAPT recommends all school districts consider the occupant restraints when making new school bus purchases but not retrofitting current buses. It also supports local school district decisions to implement lap-shoulder belts when necessary, if funding is available, and recommends training programs for the proper use of the seat belts as well as disciplinary programs for students who don't wear them and proper student evacuation procedures.
But, the paper concludes, local decisions to implement lap-shoulder belts ultimately should not result in student riders being displaced from their school buses.
Even aging school buses, however, are safer than any other vehicle on the road, Weisinger further pointed out. School buses during their manufacture are subject to more than three dozen Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards, several of which were written specifically for school buses.
Then there are the fears that seat belts may have further unintended consequences, such as in the event of an emergency and the need to quickly evacuate students.
“For a lot of school bus drivers, seat belts scare them,” she said. “All the ‘what-ifs.’”