Sen. Tammy Duckworth spoke during the 51st annual National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services (NASDPTS) conference in Washington, D.C. about the importance of updating school buses with the latest safety technologies. She said these should include seatbelts and the funding that school districts need to install them.
While the Democrat from Illinois and member of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation discussed her reintroduced legislation, the School Bus Safety Act 2019, she also recounted personal moments with her daughter that furthers her drive to get the bill passed.
Duckworth was deployed to Iraq in 2004 as a Blackhawk helicopter pilot for the Illinois Army National Guard. On Nov. 12, 2004, her helicopter was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG). Duckworth lost her legs and partial use of her right arm in the attack.
“I’m not comparing school bus safety equipment to military safety equipment in a Blackhawk helicopter, but a lot of it is the same,” Duckworth said during the state director conference. “I wore a five-point harness on my seatbelt and that actually kept me safe. And even though I was hit by an RPG and we landed that aircraft, all that safety equipment together, it wasn’t any one thing. All of the different things working together saved my life.”
Duckworth explained that it was the combination of the protective gear, the helicopter stability system, seat and cushion she was sitting on, the seatbelt that restrained her, and the helmet and visor she was wearing that kept her alive long enough to be evacuated.
Now, 15 years later, she shared moments with her soon-to-be, 5-year-old daughter, who is already begging and pleading to ride the school bus. Duckworth added that the recent school bus tragedies in Baltimore and Chattanooga, Tennessee leave her terrified.
“I don’t think it’s too much to ask that we make every effort to keep our students safe, should the unthinkable happen,” Duckworth said. “And for me, it comes down to this: No parent should have to worry that their little girl or boy might not make it to math class in the morning or back home after the final bell. And even though we know that the school bus is the safest way for kids to get to and from school by far, there is no good reason why we can’t move that very high bar a couple notches higher, because we have the chance to prevent a life from being needlessly lost, another child from being needlessly injured.”
Duckworth added that installing three-point seatbelts also builds on the habits learned by children. She said her daughter believes wearing a seatbelt is necessary.
“She hates that car seat, but she thinks the car will not start or run unless the seatbelt is on,” Duckworth shared. “It’s a lifetime of habit for her. And then for me to say, okay, but when you are on the school bus, you don’t have to wear one, but then to try to reinforce it in the car, it sends a mixed message.”
Duckworth’s bill, co-sponsored with Rep. Steve Cohen and reintroduced on July 25, calls for all new school buses to be equipped with three-point safety belts, automatic emergency braking systems, black boxes to record pre- and post-crash data and fire suppression systems.
“Right now, most school buses don’t have the seatbelts or other basic equipment that have been proven to save those lives and that’s been recommended by the National Transportation Safety Board,” Duckworth observed.
She said the bill would also include a grant program, so that school districts could use it to make these changes at a more reasonable cost. The amount of funding would be tied to the number of kids on the subsidized lunch program in each school district.
“I get it is not going to be cost-free. But I think every parent would agree that it would be worth it to spend a little more today to better protect our kids tomorrow,” Duckworth said.
She added that once the safety equipment is mandated, she expects the prices in equipment to drop. Duckworth referenced the mandate of seatbelts and side airbags in passenger vehicles. She commented that once they were introduced as an optional item, they decreased in price when they were required by law.
“Yes, we will have to reach into our pockets at first to get those black boxes and seatbelts in school buses,” Duckworth said. “But as we have seen time and again, the prices will fall, new standards will be set, and we will be left to wonder why it took us so long to make that choice.”
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Following her presentation, NASDPTS Executive Director Charlie Hood said the association was reconsidering its February 2014 position paper, “The Equipping and Use of Passenger Lap/Shoulder Belts in School Buses,” and the group has plans to strengthen the verbiage.
Right now, the paper states that NASDPTS supports the installation and use of lap/shoulder belts in the school bus, but it stops short of advocating that the installation and/or use be required.
Instead, the proposed paper says that local districts that decide to use the belts should also develop a mandatory usage policy, as well as necessary training.
The position adds that “NASDPTS is not advocating that the installation and/or use of lap/shoulder belts be required by state or local jurisdictions without thorough consideration of available resources.”
Hood explained that NASDPTS is very supportive of lap/shoulder belts. “It’s time to do it,” he commented.
Many other attendees spoke in favor of the bill, as well as thanking Duckworth for her service. Following her presentation, attendees had fewer questions than after the other sessions presented throughout the three-day conference, and everyone rose to their feet as she exited the room.
“Wow. I have stunned you all to silence,” Duckworth said laughing. “I heard that this was not that type of crowd.”
Duckworth said she is working to pass the bill, which was referred to the Subcommittee on Highways and Transit, before the next presidential election.
Editor’s Note: The Show Reporter 2019 will feature a Q & A with Sen. Tammy Duckworth about her newly reintroduced legislation.