By Michael Norton
State House News Service
STATE HOUSE — Raising cost and compliance concerns, the group representing school bus contractors in Massachusetts recently told lawmakers they are not convinced that bills calling for seat belts on buses will achieve intended results.
But the opinions of School Transportation Association of Massachusetts officials have not dissuaded lawmakers pushing bus belt requirement bills who say imposing the safety standard is a matter of “common sense” that will extend requirements already in place for other vehicles.
“We require every other vehicle out there to have some level of seat belts and some level of restraints. This is our most precious commodity, our kids,” Rep. Hank Naughton, co-chairman of the Legislature’s Public Safety Committee, told the News Service in a phone interview.
At a recent hearing, officials from the School Transportation Association of Massachusetts did not stake out a position for or against numerous school bus seat belt bills, a change from their previous opposition to such bills. But they suggested there’s not enough manufacturing capacity to retrofit the existing 9,400 Massachusetts school buses to add belts. Retrofitting would lead to the voiding of manufacturer warrantees, and used buses without belts would be “severely devalued” with owners forced to seek out-of-state buyers, according to the association’s testimony.
An association official said that if lawmakers want to begin requiring belts on school buses they should consider instituting a grace period for existing buses and begin requiring belts under long-term competitively bid contracts. That’s an idea favored by one sponsor of a school bus belt bill, Rep. Garrett Bradley, a Hingham Democrat, who told the News Service that adding that language may give the bill some traction.
Frank Underhill, executive director of the association, which includes more than 100 school bus contractors and municipalities who run their own school buses, told members of the Public Safety Committee that passenger restraint systems would add between $11,000 and $13,000 to the cost of buses, which currently range from $90,000 to $105,000.
Underhill estimated six states require seat belts on school buses, but told lawmakers none of those states have fully implemented the requirement due to a lack of funding.
Naughton said he understands cost concerns, but doesn’t agree with them and noted accident-related injuries come with their own costs. “We all know they will just pass it on to the school district and their other customers,” he said. “Who’s kidding who?”
When a bus association official suggested more lives might be lost in a bus fire if children are belted in and can’t easily disengage their belts, Naughton raised the prospect of unbelted children suffering contusions, concussions or worse in bus accidents.
Committee member Sen. Richard Ross said he was “astonished” that there’s still a debate over whether seat belts should be required on school buses. “It kind of blows my mind,” the senator said.
According to a committee aide, no one offered oral testimony in favor of school bus seat belt bills (H 2123, H 2094, H 2161, S 1282, and H 2101) at the May public hearing.
Naughton said legislative proposals often take years to gather momentum, noting it was the third or fourth session that he’d file his belt bill.
“This is something I feel strongly about,” Naughton said. “I think it’s time has come. Sometimes it takes a while for things to percolate, to get on the radar screen.”
California, Florida, Louisiana, New Jersey, New York and Texas have seat belts on school buses, according to DiZoglio, and the American Academy of Pediatrics has “long advocated” that buses should have safety restraints.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Commission has concluded following crash testing that school bus passengers “are significantly better-protected from injury with the presence of lap-shoulder belts,” DiZoglio (D-Methuen) wrote in her testimony.
Underhill told the News Service that four of the six states that require belts on school buses have provided state funding to help pay for implementation of that requirement. “I think that’s a pretty critical point to get things off the ground,” he said.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration did not respond to an inquiry about that agency’s latest thinking on seat belts on school buses. On its website, the NHTSA says about 450,000 public school buses travel about 4.3 billion miles each year to transport 23.5 million children, and on average six school-age children throughout the U.S. die in school bus crashes as passengers. Compared to other vehicles, the agency says “school buses are different by design and use a different kind of safety restraint system that works extremely well.”
“Large school buses are heavier and distribute crash forces differently than do passenger cars and light trucks. Because of these differences, the crash forces experienced by occupants of buses are much less than that experienced by occupants of passenger cars, light trucks or vans,” according to the agency.
“NHTSA decided that the best way to provide crash protection to passengers of large school buses is through a concept called ‘compartmentalization.’ This requires that the interior of large buses provide occupant protection such that children are protected without the need to buckle-up. Through compartmentalization, occupant crash protection is provided by a protective envelope consisting of strong, closely-spaced seats that have energy-absorbing seat backs.”