The School Bus Safety Act that was introduced this month in the U.S. House and Senate to mandate National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) recommendations for school bus lap-shoulder seat belts and collision mitigation technology, is one of many bills introduced recently to make children even safer while riding school buses.
“Several states have laws regarding passenger restraints, and some school districts already purchase buses with seat belts,” commented Deborah Hersman, president and CEO of the National Safety Council and a former NTSB Chair. “The [School Bus Safety Act] would create uniformity in school bus transportation services so all children have a consistent experience regardless of the jurisdiction.”
The BUS Act of 2017 also seeks lap-shoulder seat belts in school buses and was referred to the Subcommittee on Health Committee. The bill states that “A person may not manufacture for sale, sell, offer for sale, introduce or deliver for introduction in interstate commerce, or import into the United States a school bus that is not equipped with a seat belt that includes both lap and shoulder belts for each intended passenger.”
Rep. Josh Gottheimer of New Jersey introduced the Secure Every Child Under the Right Equipment Standards (SECURES) Act of 2018 as one of two pieces of legislation in response to the fatal May 17 crash of a school bus operating a field trip for the Paramus Public Schools. It would require three-point seatbelts in school buses nationwide.
“Seat belts save lives and reduce serious injuries,” Hersman said. “The National Safety Council has supported personal restraint use for decades, and we are just as adamant about making them standard equipment on school buses.”
New laws are also going into effect at the state level. New Jersey recently amended existing law on two-point lap belts on school buses, to require the lap-shoulder variety. Gov. Phil Murphy signed A4110 into law earlier this year, and it will go into effect in January 2018, for all new school bus purchases.
Three other states—California, Texas and Nevada (Nevada’s requirement goes into effect next July)—also have laws on three-point seat belts.
Meanwhile, Florida, Louisiana and New York have laws requiring two-point lap belts. But Louisiana’s law is only enforceable if the state legislature funds school boards, which it has yet to do.
Despite dozens of state bills being introduced nationwide to add lap-shoulder seat belts to school buses, a large number of school bus industry professionals have loudly voiced their opposition. While many organizations agree that seat belts save lives, others fear they could hinder student evacuations in the case of a school bus fire, for example, as the rate of such fires has increased in recent years.
Others, like the National School Transportation Association (NSTA) that represents private school bus contractor interests, argue that lap-shoulder belt adoption should not be mandated at the federal level, but instead should be a state, or better yet, local district decision.
“On safety belts specifically, NSTA believes the decision on whether to equip school buses with safety belts should be decided at the state and local level, by those closest to funding streams for school transportation,” the organization said in a statement on Sept. 19. “NSTA believes as many children as possible should have access to the safest mode of transportation and school bus service should not be reduced to fund new buses with safety belts.”
But both federal and state legislators are eying additional improvements beyond seat belts.
The Miranda Vargas School Bus Driver Red Flag Act, named for the 10-year-old girl who was killed in the Paramus crash, was introduced in Congress in July 2018. Miranda’s Law seeks to make it more difficult for commercial vehicle operators who have motor vehicle violations on file, to drive school buses.
The law would require school districts and school bus drivers to be automatically notified when one of their drivers receive a traffic violation. The law was referred to the Subcommittee on Highways and Transit.
In addition to Miranda’s Law, Rep. Gottheimer introduced another new piece of legislation on Sept. 18 alongside New Jersey State Senator Joe Lagana, Assemblywoman Lisa Swain, Assemblyman Chris Tully, and Joevanny Vargas, Miranda’s father. It would require New Jersey to adopt all of the provisions of Miranda’s Law.
Georgia recently passed House Bill 978, which makes it no longer illegal to pass a stopped bus that is loading or unloading students, as long as the highway is divided by at least a turn lane.
“NASDPTS believes there is a role for more federal guidance in certain areas where greater national uniformity would be appropriate,” NASDPTS Executive Director Charlie Hood said. “One significant example would be to minimize the variation that exists in state by state laws on when and under what circumstances motorists must stop for school buses.”
New York passed S.2487 in the Senate and A.208 in the Assembly, which were both passed in June 2018. The law says that all school bus drivers are required to be subjected to drug and alcohol tests before hire, and then randomly throughout employment. The bill also states that districts and contractors are to prevent employees from operating vehicles if they believe the employee has consumed any drug, alcohol or controlled substance within the past eight hours.