WASHINGTON, D.C. — A congressman from Tennessee questioned federal transportation officials on school bus occupant protection in a committee hearing on Tuesday.
During the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee hearing, Democratic Rep. Steve Cohen brought up last year’s fatal school bus crashes in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and Baltimore, Maryland. In light of those crashes, Cohen asked why federal regulators have not initiated a rulemaking to require lap-shoulder belts on school buses.
“Six school-aged children were taken [in Chattanooga] … and that was wrong,” Cohen said. “In both cases, it seems there were a number of safety precautions and oversight issues that could have prevented or mitigated the risk of injuries and fatalities suffered from the unfortunate events.”
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's (NHTSA’s) previous administrator, Mark Rosekind, announced in 2015 that the agency’s new position was that “every child on every school bus should have a three-point seat belt.”
However, NHTSA has not turned that recommendation into a requirement. Rosekind’s term as administrator ended with the inauguration of President Trump, and the agency is still awaiting a new administrator.
In the committee hearing on Tuesday, Cohen noted that the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has endorsed lap-shoulder belts for school buses in several of its crash investigations. The congressman asked Bella Dinh-Zarr, an NTSB board member, if that recommendation still stands.
“That still does stand. We are recommending that states and school boards, as they buy new school buses, buy buses that have this better type of restraint system,” Dinh-Zarr replied. “And the reason is, in our crash reconstruction and our investigations, we found that there are certain types of crashes, such as a rollover crash or a side-impact crash, where having a three-point seat belt is very important.”
Cohen said that he has been working on the issue of school bus safety since the 1990s, and he claimed that school boards have consistently opposed equipping school buses with seat belts because of the added cost.
“The money should come secondary to safety,” Cohen said in the hearing. “Dollars shouldn’t be the issue with our precious cargo.”
To that end, in December, Cohen introduced a bill in Congress that would create federal grants to equip school buses with lap-shoulder belts, among other measures targeting pupil transportation. The “Bring Enhanced Liability in Transportation for Students (BELTS) Act” failed to pass out of committee, but Cohen said in a press release on Tuesday that he plans to reintroduce the bill.
Watch video of Cohen’s remarks and Dinh-Zarr’s response below.