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In wake of fatal Hays CISD crash, Austin ISD reassures families all its buses have seat belts

A yellow school bus drives down a highway in traffic at dusk and drivers have their headlights on.
Gabriel C. Pérez
/
KUT News
A state law passed in 2017 requires school districts to buy buses with lap and shoulder seat belts.

All of Austin ISD’s 551 school buses have seat belts, the district's executive director of transportation and vehicle services said.

Most of the buses — 460 — have lap and shoulder seat belts; the other 91 have lap belts. About 20,000 students ride the bus each school day.

Kris Hafezizadeh said the district has taken additional precautions following the fatal Hays CISD bus crash last month.

“I asked our team to make sure every single bus is rechecked, to make sure the seat belts are working properly,” he said.

Hafezizadeh said AISD buses are replaced every 12 years or every 250,000 miles, whichever comes first. He said all new buses include lap and shoulder, or three-point, seat belts.

The Hays CISD bus in the March 22 crash was a 2011 model and did not have seat belts.

The bus was carrying 44 pre-K students and 11 adults back from a field trip when a concrete truck veered into its lane and hit it, causing the bus to roll over. Five-year-old Ulises Rodriguez Montoya, a student at Tom Green Elementary, was killed. Ryan Wallace, a 33-year-old UT doctoral candidate who was driving behind the bus, also died.

State law and state money

A state law passed in 2017 requires school districts to buy buses with lap and shoulder seat belts. Congresswoman Sylvia Garcia authored the legislation when she was a state senator after a deadly school bus crash in Houston. Two students died after a car hit their bus and it fell off an overpass. Neither student was wearing a seat belt.

Hafezizadeh said Austin ISD had been moving in that direction years before the law was passed.

“Of course, when you add new things in the law, in the legislation there is the question of funding,” he said. “But we truly believe the lap-shoulder belts, seat belts on the school buses are a great thing to be preventative for the safety of our students.”

The 2017 law updated one the Legislature approved in 2007 that required all new school buses bought on or after Sept. 1, 2010, to be equipped with three-point seatbelts. However, the law had a major caveat: Its provision would not take effect unless lawmakers provided enough money for districts to cover the cost of the new buses.

"Only four districts applied for and were awarded funds [from the School Bus Seat Belt Grant Program], totaling $416,582."
Texas Education Agency

Then, during the 2009 legislative session, state lawmakers set aside $10 million for the School Bus Seat Belt Grant Program to reimburse public and charter schools for the cost of getting three-point seat belts.

Districts or charter schools had to apply to the Texas Education Agency for the money, but the vast majority did not take advantage of the program.

“Only four districts applied for and were awarded funds, totaling $416,582,” the TEA said in an email to KUT. “Expenditures of grant awards were limited exclusively to the incremental cost of purchasing buses with three-point seat belts, or for reimbursing the incremental cost of purchasing said buses.”

Austin ISD was one of the four districts to apply for and receive funding, getting a grant of $95,550.

“After that we decided any new buses that we purchased be equipped with the lap-shoulder belt,” Hafezizadeh said.

Pettus ISD, South Texas ISD and Dallas County School — a group that provided transportation services to public schools in the Dallas-Fort Worth area — also got grants.

Hafezizadeh said even though Austin ISD has seat belts on all its buses, families can help by encouraging their children to wear them.

"It’s not very easy for a bus driver that has 60, 70 kids in their bus to make sure every single one has them [on],” he said.

Hafezizadeh said his heart goes out to Hays CISD and the families affected by the crash.

“When something like that happens, the whole nation and the state, we are with them,” he said. “And hopefully things like that never happen again.”

Hays CISD buses

Hays CISD said it began buying school buses with three-point seat belts after the Texas Legislature required it in 2017.

The district said 15 of its 109 buses that operate on daily routes do not have seat belts. Currently, none of the district’s 87 spare buses have seat belts, either; on any given day, about 40 of them are in use.

But that is set to change soon, according to Hays CISD. The district has received 21 new buses and is currently outfitting them with GPS equipment and cameras. Hays CISD said in a statement it anticipates the buses will be ready in the “coming weeks.” This will mean all the buses operating on daily routes and six spare buses will have seat belts.

“We still don’t know whether a seatbelt would have made a difference in this accident and there is much debate about putting seatbelts on school buses at all,” Hays CISD said in a March 25 statement. “However, for us, the debate is settled because Texas is one of the eight states that require them for newer buses.”

State data from the Texas Department of Transportation finds that in 2022 alone, there were 2,305 crashes involving a Texas school bus. Those collisions left seven people dead and seriously injured 51 others.

Criminal charges

The concrete truck driver involved in the Hays CISD crash was arrested last week and charged with criminally negligent homicide, according to the Texas Department of Public Safety.

Jerry Hernandez has been deemed an “imminent hazard to public safety” by the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration.

“Prior to the crash, Hernandez had been prohibited from operating CMVs [commercial vehicles] three times for drug use, and he was currently prohibited from operating CMVs at the time of the crash based on an April 2023 positive test which revealed he had been using cocaine,” the federal agency said in a statement.

It said it's working with the state to disqualify Hernandez's commercial driver’s license.

Becky Fogel is the education reporter at KUT. Got a tip? Email her at rfogel@kut.org. Follow her on Twitter @beckyfogel.
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