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New school buses must have seat belts under Texas law

(by Shannon Na Najmabadi, Texas Tribune)

Starting this month, Texas school districts in the market for new school buses must ensure they have shoulder-to-lap seat belts for all riders.

The three-point seat belt law replaces a 2007 law that offered money to districts that opted to install seat belts in their school buses. Few districts took advantage of the funding, leaving most Texas school buses belt-less.

This “common-sense safety legislation acts on what Texans already know to be true: that seat belts save lives,” Tori Sommerman, deputy director of the advocacy organization Texas Watch, said in an email.

The law and its 2007 predecessor were both spurred in part by tragic accidents. In 2015, a school bus in Houston plunged from an overpass, killing two students, Janecia Chatman and Mariya Johnson. Neither of them were wearing shoulder-to-lap seat belts. The accident occurred in the state Senate district of Sen. Sylvia Garcia, D-Houston, the author of the new law.

“Ashley and Alicia’s Law,” the 2007 measure, was named after two Beaumont high schoolers killed when a bus they were riding overturned in 2006. After the wreck, anguished family members said they believed seat belts might have prevented the teens’ deaths. A state trooper who investigated the crash agreed.

“Our families experienced what no parents should ever have to experience: We buried two of our children. We nursed others through painful injuries and permanent disabilities,” said Steve Forman, the father of a student who was injured in the 2006 wreck, in testimony before a Senate committee in April. His daughter, Allison, was partly ejected from the bus and underwent numerous surgeries on one arm that had been trapped under the bus for about an hour. “If you can afford to build new stadiums, if you can afford digital scoreboards,” he added, “then you can afford the protection that our children deserve.”

The Beaumont and Houston school districts, where the crashes occurred, began requiring three-point seat belts after the accidents. But there was no state requirement until this year.

Six states, including Texas, now have some variation of a school bus seat belt law, according to a 2017 report from the National Conference of State Legislatures.

The measure in Texas requires that three-point seat belts be in school buses that are model year 2018 or later, including buses chartered by school districts and used for events and other functions. The measure does not require that older buses be retrofitted with the restraints, and districts that cannot afford seat belts can opt out of the requirement if they hold a public meeting with a vote.

Seat belts are estimated to add $8,000 to $10,000 per bus – a price tag that’s near-prohibitive for some districts, especially as the state’s transportation funding formula has stayed stagnant for decades.

Belton Independent School District, for example, encompasses nearly 200 square miles and has a growing student body. District officials order five to seven new school buses a year to accommodate new students and replace old buses, said Susan Kincannon, the district’s superintendent.

Adding seat belts could cost an additional $60,000 a year – “almost the price of a new bus,” Kincannon said. That financial reality will play a role in determining how many new buses the district buys and which are taken offline, she added.

“We don’t have anything against seat belts in school buses,” Kincannon said. But she and other school district officials wish the Legislature had provided funding for the mandate.

One of the few districts that took advantage of funding made available under the 2007 law was Austin Independent School District. After that pool of money ran out, the district continued to purchase new buses with three-point belts, said Kris Hafezizadeh, the district’s executive director of transportation. Of the 515 buses the district has now, 360 of them have three-point seat belts, including all of the buses for special needs students.

“We’re going to continue the trend whether or not there are additional funds,” he said, but he added that cost is a barrier schools face in installing seat belts.

During the legislative session, critics of the measure said adding seat belts was costly and unnecessary because padded seat backs and other features in buses protect students during accidents. State Sen. Bob Hall, R-Edgewood, said adding restraints could restrict riders’ mobility in an accident and so be more dangerous.

The superintendent of Temple Independent School District, Robin Battershell, said there is also the logistical trouble of ensuring 75 or so child riders fasten their seat belts and deciding how to penalize the students who don’t. “Think about a parent making sure you have two kids strapped into your car,” she said, and “multiply that by another horde of kids.”

It’s unknown what kind of liability a district would incur if a student was not wearing his or her seat belt on a school bus equipped with them, she added.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says school buses are one of the safest modes of transportation, and it has recommended since 2015 that school buses have three-point seat belts as an additional protection.

“Too often we see lawmakers take a wait-and-see approach,” said Courtney DeBower, the advocacy and communications director at the Texas EMS, Trauma and Acute Care Foundation, which supported the bill. This law, she said, instead takes a proactive and reasonable approach to preventing injuries.