CARSON CITY, Nev. — Nevada has joined its neighbor California in becoming one of the only states to require three-point seat belts for school buses.
On Sunday, Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval signed into law a bill, AB485, that mandates lap-shoulder belts on new school buses purchased on or after July 1, 2019.
There are currently about 2,700 school buses in Nevada. Diana Hollander, state pupil transportation director at the Nevada Department of Education, said that the state's school districts buy a total of around 170 new school buses on average per year.
The majority of those new bus purchases are by the state’s largest district, Clark County School District in Las Vegas. In the fiscal notes for the newly passed bill, Clark County reported that it buys about 100 to 110 school buses per year. According to the district, lap-shoulder belt seating will reduce the capacity of 90- and 87-passenger buses to 84 passengers. That reduction and the cost of the restraint systems will have a total annual cost impact of $1.4 million to $1.8 million, Clark County reported.
On the smaller side of Nevada fleets, Douglas County School District in Minden said that it acquires an average of three new school buses per year. The district expects lap-shoulder belts to add about $10,000 per bus purchase, for a total annual cost increase of about $30,000.
At least one Nevada district, Washoe County School District in Reno, is already a step ahead of the new mandate.
“Washoe County School District has already begun the process of purchasing buses with seat belts, so we do not expect any incremental increase in [the] cost of purchasing buses,” the district reported in the fiscal notes of the bill. “It does decrease occupancy rates, requiring more buses.”
In testimony about the bill on May 9, Assemblyman Richard Carrillo cited recent school bus crashes in Nevada and in other states, including the November 2016 fatal crashes in Baltimore, Maryland, and Chattanooga, Tennessee.
“It was that crash in Chattanooga that inspired this bill,” Carrillo said. “Ultimately, keeping our students safe to and from their neighborhoods to school should be a priority. This portion of the bill is intended to ensure that all the students are as safe as possible while riding in the school bus and to help prevent needless injuries or deaths.”
Hollander, who is the current president of the National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services (NASDPTS), said that she supported the bill and provided lawmakers with NASDPTS’ 2014 position paper on lap-shoulder belts. She said that the addition of the three-point restraints could help correct a perception among many parents that school buses aren’t safe.
“I’m hoping the outcome will be that more parents will force their children to ride the bus rather than driving them to school,” Hollander said.
The new seat belt law does not address school bus driver liability, nor does it require school bus passengers to buckle up. On that front, Hollander said she will provide the state's school districts with recommendations from the National Transportation Safety Board and a school bus seat belt implementation toolkit from North Carolina.
California is currently the only other state that has an effective requirement for lap-shoulder belts on large school buses. Texas passed a bill to require the three-point restraints starting in 2010, but only if the state Legislature appropriated money to pay for them, which is not happening.
Similarly, Louisiana passed a school bus seat belt bill that remains unfunded and ineffective. Three other states — New York, New Jersey, and Florida — require lap belts on school buses.
Federally, three-point belts are mandated only on small school buses — more precisely, those with a gross vehicle weight rating of 10,000 pounds or less.
In addition to requiring lap-shoulder belts, the bill passed in Nevada also included a measure that changes the state’s definition of a school bus to a vehicle that is “designed or used to carry more than 10 passengers in addition to the driver,” which more closely aligns with the federal definition. Nevada's previous version didn't address passenger capacity.
Hollander said that she hopes the revised definition will have the effect of ruling out the use of 15-passenger vans for transporting students in her state. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and other federal agencies have issued numerous warnings about the risks associated with those vehicles.
“If I can get rid of 15-passenger vans [for transporting students], we have done a huge thing here in Nevada,” Hollander said.