As kids head back to school this fall, it’s a good time for parents to take a hard look at school bus safety. Illinois is one of 42 states that doesn’t require seat belts on large school buses.
“All school buses should have seat belts,” McNabola Law Group founding partner Mark McNabola said. “It’s a simple safety measure that could have a huge impact in children’s lives.”
An estimated 25 million kids across the U.S. ride 485,000 buses each school day, covering more than four billion miles per year, according to the National Association for Pupil Transportation. Accidents claim four to six lives annually, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reports.
Some argue that number is low enough that bus companies don’t need to take extra safety precautions by installing seat belts.
But in 2018, the National Transportation Safety Board for the first time recommended all new school buses be equipped with lap and shoulder seat belts. And earlier this year, U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-IL) reintroduced the School Bus Safety Act, a bill that would require seat belts, data recorders and automatic braking on all school buses.
“No parent should have to worry about the safety of their children when they get on a school bus, but school buses often lack seat belts and other basic safety equipment that every parent demands,” Duckworth said in a news release.
Only eight states — California, Florida, New Jersey, New York, Arkansas, Louisiana, Nevada and Texas — have laws requiring seat belts on large school buses, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
In Illinois, then-state Rep. Lou Lang (D-Skokie) introduced a bill in 2017 that would require three-point safety harnesses on all school buses in the state. The bill stalled in the rules committee.
Opponents argue the cost of outfitting school buses with seat belts is prohibitive for cash-strapped school districts since the process costs $7,000 to $10,000 per bus.
“The cost is justified when it has the power to reduce injuries and deaths from bus accidents,” McNabola said. “You can’t put a price on our children’s safety.”
In August, an NBC News reporter traveled to the Center for Advanced Product Evaluation (CAPE) in Westfield, Ind., to watch a school bus crash demonstration.
Fifteen crash-test dummies were placed in the bus, which was driven off a ramp at 35 mph. Eight dummies wearing seat belts did not move from their seats during the ensuing rollover crash.
But three of the seven dummies without seat belts were flung across the bus as it rolled over. One dummy snapped its neck on a seat; two other dummies slammed into another passenger.
“It’s pretty horrific,” Duckworth told the reporter after being shown the video. “Anybody who’s a parent, anybody who cares about children — if they saw this, they would just be horrified.”
Duckworth’s proposed legislation, the School Bus Safety Act of 2019 (S.2278), would require all school buses be equipped with three-point safety belts that include a lap belt and shoulder harness; an event data recorder (EDR) to provide pre- and post-crash data if a collision does occur; and an automatic braking system, among other safety features.