The safety benefits and the financial concerns involved in school bus seat belts are the focus of a report that aired Tuesday night on PBS NewsHour.
The piece, which is part of the program’s “Making the Grade” series on education, takes on a topic that has long been debated among transportation officials and legislators.
In the wake of the Nov. 21 crash in Chattanooga, Tennessee, in which six students were killed, school bus-related bills were introduced in numerous states. Many of those proposals aim to require restraints on school buses.
For the PBS NewsHour segment, correspondent Lisa Stark of Education Week visited Austin (Texas) Independent School District (ISD), which five years ago decided to equip all of its new school buses with lap-shoulder belts, at an extra cost of $8,000 per bus.
“You feel safe when you put your seat belt on,” a school bus passenger says in the NewsHour segment.
Stark also interviewed Kris Hafezizadeh, the director of transportation for Austin ISD, who said that the lap-shoulder belts provide a consistent message to students while enhancing their protection.
“We always ask our kids when they get inside the car [to] put on their seat belts,” Hafezizadeh tells Stark. “So to carry the culture inside of our school buses — it does add to additional safety.”
As School Bus Fleet previously reported, Texas passed legislation 10 years ago that required three-point belts on school buses starting in 2010, but only if the state Legislature appropriated money to reimburse school districts for the cost of the restraint systems. Since state funding is not being provided, school districts don’t have to comply. Austin ISD is one of a few Texas districts that have begun voluntarily equipping their new buses with three-point belts.
A new proposal in Texas calls for three-point belts on school buses beginning with model year 2018. The bill would not be contingent on funding from the Legislature, but it would allow school boards to opt out due to budgetary constraints.
In the PBS NewsHour piece, another school transportation director, Todd Watkins of Montgomery County (Md.) Public Schools, points to financial considerations in his assessment of school bus seat belts.
“I’m not against it, I just don’t think it is the best use of money right now because the safety is at such a high level on school buses as it is,” Watkins says in the NewsHour segment.
Stark's report also includes an interview with Mark Rosekind, former administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. During his tenure, Rosekind said that the agency had adopted a new position on the issue: “Every child on every school bus should have a three-point seat belt.”
Charlie Hood, executive director of the National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services (NASDPTS), said in an email to members that NASDPTS provided Stark with its 2014 position paper on lap-shoulder belts, which Hood said she reviewed but didn’t specifically cite in the report.
Tuesday night’s full PBS NewsHour program is embedded below. The school bus seat belt report begins just before the 39-minute mark.