WASHINGTON, D.C. — The recent fatal school bus crash in New Jersey and new recommendations by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) have led to an effort in Congress to require seat belts on school buses across the country.
U.S. Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-N.J.) on Tuesday announced a new bipartisan bill that would require the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) to “begin the rulemaking process on new federal requirements for seat belts on school buses,” according to a one-page summary of the proposal.
The legislation, dubbed the Secure Every Child Under the Right Equipment Standards (SECURES) Act, is also backed by U.S. Rep. John Faso (R-N.Y.), with a Senate companion bill to be introduced by Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.). The House bill, H.R.5984, was introduced on Tuesday, but the text was not available as of press time.
The summary of the SECURES Act proposal does not specify that the DOT rulemaking would have to be for lap-shoulder belts. Rather, the legislation would direct the DOT to “consider the added safety benefits of lap/shoulder seat belts in the rulemaking process,” and it would "require DOT to include NTSB’s recommendations in the federal rulemaking process." The bill summary cites NTSB’s new special investigation report on school bus safety, which recommends that states mandate lap-shoulder belts for all new large school buses.
The launch of the SECURES Act legislation follows the May 17 school bus crash in Mount Olive, New Jersey, that killed a student and a teacher. The bus in that crash was reportedly equipped with lap-only belts, as required by New Jersey law.
On Tuesday, Gottheimer and other elected officials held a press conference at the Fair Lawn (N.J.) Board of Education’s transportation depot. With a backdrop of yellow buses, the congressman discussed the Mount Olive crash and his new legislative proposal.
“As a parent of a 6-year-old and an 8-year-old, and as your congressman, after this horrific bus accident, I wanted to know if more could be done to ensure that all of our children, regardless of where they live, are as safe as they could be on our school buses,” Gottheimer said. “Our research has shown us that, as a state and as a country, there are more arrows in the quiver than we are currently putting into action. The evidence couldn’t be clearer — seat belts in school buses save lives.”
Gottheimer also said that he is writing to officials at the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration and the New Jersey Motor Vehicle Commission “asking them to study and to take immediate action to ensure that all bus drivers are qualified to drive our children.”
A video of the press conference can be viewed below.
Federally, lap-shoulder belts are required only on small school buses — more precisely, those with a gross vehicle weight rating of 10,000 pounds or less.
Three states — New Jersey, Florida, and New York — require lap belts on their large school buses. California mandates lap-shoulder belts.
Texas last year passed a requirement for lap-shoulder belts on school buses, but school boards can opt out if they determine that they can’t afford the additional cost of the restraint systems. Also last year, Nevada passed a mandate for lap-shoulder belts on new school buses that goes into effect July 1, 2019.
Louisiana has a school bus seat belt law on the books, passed in 1999, but it is contingent on funding being appropriated to pay for the restraints. Since the mandate remains unfunded, it has not been implemented.
Here's video of Gottheimer's press conference in New Jersey on Tuesday: