Recent school bus crash brings back debate over seat belts on buses

Janesville only district that requires seat belts

Recent school bus crash brings back...

JANESVILLE, Wis. - As authorities investigate a crash involving a school bus in Grant County, officials in Rock County continue to advocate for seat belts on school buses.

In 2009, the School District of Janesville Board of Education voted to require seat belts on all new buses that were purchased. The buses without seat belts that were currently in use would not have to have seat belts.

Current board President Kevin Murray and former state Senator Tim Cullen were both on the board at the time.

“Click it or ticket, so why not in school buses too? It just makes sense,” Murray said. “Especially with our most precious cargo, right? Our children and our grandchildren.”

District Communication Specialist Patrick Gasper said the school district partners with Van Galder Bus Company for transportation services. The bus company has about 11 traditional school buses that are regularly used for bus routes. Of those 11 buses, five have seat belts.

“This is something that the school district takes health and safety very seriously, not only in the schools and the cafeterias and the playgrounds, but also in transportation,” Gasper said. “This is one of those additional safety features that they felt strongly about.”

In addition to those 11 buses, there are 19 other school buses with seat belts that are used for transporting students with special needs, Gasper said.

The cost for the safety upgrade isn’t cheap. According to Gasper, it costs around $15,000 more to fit a school bus with seat belts compared to a bus without.

“That is at a cost that the school district has taken on, so when the bus company purchases a bus, we cover roughly $15,000 to have the seat belts added,” Gasper said.

For advocates like Cullen, the cost is a small price to pay for something that could potentially save a life.

“Get the seat belts in the bus before we have a tragedy, a major, major tragedy,” he said. “We’re having these constant ones, like the one in Grant County, but what usually drives the Legislature to act is one where several lives are lost.”

As a state senator, Cullen tried unsuccessfully to get a bill passed that would require seat belts on school buses statewide. Even though he’s no longer in the Legislature, he’s still advocating to make school buses safer.

“Most days go by without a school bus accident, but it’s just beyond me why you don’t do the one thing that you know works, which is put on a seat belt,” Cullen said.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said school buses are the safest vehicle on the road. According to its website, an average of six school-age children die each year on buses, which is less than 1 percent of all traffic deaths nationwide.

“There is no question that seat belts play an important role in keeping passengers safe…but school buses are different by design, including a different kind of safety restraint system that works extremely well,” NHTSA’s website said.

School buses protect students without seat belts through a concept called “compartmentalization.” According to the NHTSA, that means the buses have strong, closely spaced seats with energy-absorbing seat backs.

“School buses, in general, are one of the safest vehicles for people,” Gasper said. “They ride higher, they’re bigger, they have more bulk, and so school buses generally do what they’re supposed to do: Keep students safe.”

The NHTSA requires small school buses that are 10,000 pounds or less has to have lap belts or lap and shoulder belts to protect students since the vehicle is smaller.

Gasper said there has only been one crash that caused injuries involving a Janesville school bus in the last seven years. He said the bus had seat belts and the only people injured were the driver and teacher’s aide.

As the older buses without seat belts are phased out of the Janesville School District, new ones equipped with safety restraints will take their place. Gasper said that could take a while, though, because according to Van Galder Bus Company, buses can be driven for about 20 years.

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