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Montana School District Trail Blazes on Seat Belt Adoption

Helena Public Schools in Montana are pushing for the statewide adoption of lap-shoulder seat belts in school buses after fully transitioning to the occupant restraints with help from contractor First Student.

“I think (all of the state’s school districts are) headed in that direction, but it will take time,” said Helena Public Schools District Transportation Manager Tom Cohn.

Cohn explained that Helena Public Schools adopted three-point belts from SafeGuard by deciding to rebid its transportation services in 2012. First Student won the bid, which called for replacing all 49 regular-route school buses with the three-point restraint systems. Cohn said the decision was a a less inexpensive and more equitable one than if Helena had chosen to incrementally add the seat belts during each annual replacement cycle, which he added would have taken about four years to complete.

“We thought about it, but also how would we have made the decision on who would be able to ride the ‘safe’ bus?” he said.

Cohn said it costs about 6 to 7 cents more per student and per bus to equip the district’s buses with lap-shoulder belts. The district transports between 2,500 and 3,000 students one-way daily. Helena also operates 17 special-needs routes for 119 students that utilize the occupant restraints in  Type-A school buses, as mandated by federal regulations. 

Since transitioning to lap-shoulder belts, Cohn said the district has seen a “vast improvement” in student behavior, especially among the district’s elementary school students. “Once those kids get belted in, we don’t have problems with kids spilling into the aisles, being in someone else’s space and taking their stuff,” he said.

|Additionally, the three-point systems assist with older students as well as high schoolers kept “more controlled in their seats,” he says.

Cohn added that he’s never seen a student use the lap-shoulder seat belt as a weapon, since the harnesses fully retract into the seat when unused or they fit snugly across the student’s chest when buckled.

As a model school district that voluntarily added seat belts despite no mandate to do so, Helena Public Schools trail blazes by setting the district policy that all school bus riders wear their seat belts and remain buckled up. Failure in doing  so results in a write up and a bus suspension.

“They either wear them or there is no transportation on the bus for them,” added Cohn, who will speak at the STN EXPO in July during a panel on real-world experiences with lap-shoulder belts. “Ninety-five to 98 percent of the kids are used to putting seat belts on in Mom’s and Dad’s cars. Kids can still take them off, but if bus driver sees it, they’ll get suspended.”

School bus drivers instruct each student in the morning as they board the bus to take their seat and to buckle their restraint system, and in the afternoon before leaving school the bus driver address all students to buckle up. The bus does not drive away from the curb until compliance is ensured.

Cohn also said the district relies on bus video to determine if students are not wearing their seat belts. If they discover incidents, a note goes home with the student as a warning. A subsequent offense results in suspension.

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