LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — What started as a young 4-H member’s scare from a family car accident has turned into a law that gives Arkansas residents the legal framework to ask their local school districts to require seat belts on new school buses starting in 2018.
Hannah Alder, a 13-year-old Star City Middle School student and 4-H member, watched on March 6 as Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson signed House Bill 1002 into law at the state Capitol.
The bill, sponsored by state Rep. Mark McElroy of Tillar and co-sponsored by state Sen. Dave Wallace of Leachville, began in 2014 as Alder’s 4-H project.
“I was talking with our 4-H leader about a car wreck my mom and I had been in,” Alder said. “When I had my wreck, it scared me, and I want other kids to be safe and not get hurt as bad as I did.”
Alder, who was in fifth grade at the time, prepared a report examining the number of fatalities associated with crashes involving school buses, many of which do not have seat belts for passengers.
Jane Newton, a Lincoln County extension agent for the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture (which facilitates the state’s 4-H program), said she encouraged Alder to present the report to Rep. McElroy.
“I thought, ‘How cute,’ until she got really serious, and I found out she had done her homework,” McElroy said. “That started about two and a half years ago. In that time period, there have been several deadly bus crashes in this region alone. One in Houston, involving a rollover, and one in Chattanooga that was devastating.”
Under the new law, residents can petition their local school board to determine how much of a millage increase would be required to afford the addition of passenger seat belts to newly purchased school buses, and to put that millage increase to a vote in the next regularly scheduled election.
“Local control was really the only way to fund this,” McElroy said. “This lets the people decide — the people who put their kids on the bus every day can decide if that’s something they want to pay for.”
McElroy said the addition of seat belts to a school bus can increase the cost of the bus by about $7,000 to $10,000. Although federal law requires smaller school buses, those with a gross vehicle weight rating of 10,000 pounds or less, to be equipped with lap-shoulder belts, any requirements for belts on larger school buses are left up to state and local legislation.
Ryan McGeeney is a communication specialist for the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture.