The Iowa Board of Education has approved a preliminary requirement for lap/shoulder seatbelts to be included in the purchase of all new school buses.
Chris Darling, the executive director of Iowa Pupil Transportation Association (IPTA), said he can trace the seatbelt conversation back to 1983, when he first started in the school bus industry.
“They were talking about seatbelts clear back when I first started in transportation, and the older guys, kind of thought we would have them by the 1990s,” Darling said. “Now we’re here in 2019 and still don’t have them.”
Starting four years ago, Darling said IPTA began furthering the conversation with members at regional meetings. This past February, the members by a unanimous vote recommended seatbelts in school buses and IPTA published a paper in support of the occupant restraints.
“The first time we went around the state of Iowa, a high percentage of them didn’t want them,” Darling said. “They believed in compartmentalization; they felt that was doing everything it was supposed to do.”
While compartmentalization, or protecting students between the high, cushioned seat backs, does work for a front- or rear-end collision, it is contingent on the students sitting facing forward in their seats. Darling said when it comes to rollover crashes or side-impact crashes, compartmentalization isn’t effective. The seatbelts also keep students in their seats as opposed to running around the bus.
“If you have a roll-over accident, students are like [cloths in] a washing machine inside those buses. We have all seen the videos,” Darling said. “They get injuries, they are hitting other students, necks are getting hurt, up to death.”
Darling added, “What we always find when we are doing our regional meetings, is that everyone is pretty adamant and vocal on the negative side of seatbelts, but the ones thinking about seatbelts are a lot quieter.”
Max Christensen, executive officer at the Iowa Department of Education, said student transporters got together and began recommending updates to the Iowa school bus specifications. They took those specifications to the state school board and received approval with them to move the specifications forward.
On June 25, a public hearing was held, giving members of the public an opportunity to come in and make comments on those specifications, one of them being the requirement of lap/shoulder seatbelts on school buses.
While the hearing ended favorably, there is still another three-steps before a rule will be enacted. Christensen added that if everything goes according to schedule, the rule requiring lap/shoulder seatbelts could be in effect as early as mid-October.
“It is a step in the right direction,” Darling said. “We have been talking about it for years … And we are in a position right now where at least more people are talking about it. It’s time to do it.”
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The state officials are only looking at requiring seatbelts with the purchase of new school buses and not retrofitting existing vehicles on the road.
Darling added that while this new requirement won’t have every student in a seatbelt right away, perhaps in 20 years that all passengers are buckled up.
“The only thing I can say is that we have to start somewhere,” Darling said.
Sixteen school districts have already implemented the three-point seatbelts in their district. Christensen and Darling said they have both heard positive feedback, so far, especially in terms of improvements in student behavior.
“The biggest change has been in behavior,” Christensen recounted. “I know one of the transportation directors at one of the smaller districts that are now requiring lap/shoulder belts, he drives a route every day. He says, ‘Max, I absolutely would never, ever purchase another bus without lap/shoulder belts.’ He said, ‘You would not believe the difference it makes. We can actually spend time driving the bus instead of spending all of our time disciplining the children.’”
Des Moines Public Schools began purchasing new school buses with three-point seatbelts, starting in 2017, following a successful pilot project the year prior.
LaShone Mosley, who arrived at the district in January of 2018 as the new director of transportation, confirmed her drivers are seeing a difference in behavior problems. But she added that she can’t speak favorably or unfavorably on the statewide seatbelt requirement, until she can personally review the data from a school bus evacuation demonstration being held at the IAPT annual conference on July 15.
“Most of our accidents are below the crash line [on the bus]. You don’t get many rollovers, where we feel the seat belt would be more appropriate. So you look at the rates of the accidents that you get, they are either fire or below the crash line,” Mosley said. “And In those cases, in terms of a fire if you smell smoke, we all know it takes less than two minutes for that bus to be engulfed in flames, and its quicker without seat belts.”
However, Mosley added that Des Moines is purchasing new school buses that are equipped with seatbelts in anticipation of the new requirement. The district currently has 27 school buses that are equipped with lap/shoulder belts.
“The year before I got here in 2017 they had put seat belts in the new buses coming in,” Mosley said. “We kind of kept that going because we ordered new buses the year I got here and then this year we did order [eight new buses equipped with lap/shoulder seatbelts] as well. Just to be prepared in case the state went in that direction, we have started the process.”
However, when making a new specification for school districts to follow, there is always going to be a finical impact. Depending on the size of the bus, lap/shoulder belts cost on average $123 per seating position, according to an Iowa review. For example, a 65-passenger bus cost around $8,000 more.
Christensen said that by calculating the 15-year life span of a school bus in Iowa, the increase comes out to a little over 4 cents per child per day.
“I mean, it really seems like a no brainer,” Christensen said. “And I have two kids myself, and if I had to spend an extra dime a day to give them the safety of a lap/shoulder belt when they are on a school bus, I would gladly pay that.”
Mosley added that the cost of the seatbelts is insignificant compared to ensuring student safety.
“I don’t care if it’s a couple hundred thousand. If that is the case, it’s worth the cost to save a life,” Mosley said.