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Why Don't More Texas School Buses Have Seat Belts?

Nathan Bernier/KUT

For nearly a decade, there have been efforts in Texas to require seat belts in buses. 


But this time might be different.


At a hearing earlier this month, Democratic state Sen. Sylvia Garcia presented a bill requiring three-point seat belts for all newly purchased school buses in Texas. They’re the same over-the-shoulder seat belts already required in other motor vehicles.


“Not requiring children to buckle up on the way to and from school creates an inconsistency in what we teach them in every other vehicle,” Garcia said at the April 12 hearing.


Texas is a “Click-It or Ticket” state. It has funded awareness campaigns to let the public know seat belt law would be enforced for passenger vehicles, but school buses fell through a very big loop hole.


Bus crash victims’ families felt like the hole swallowed their cause.


Steve Forman’s daughter was injured in a fatal 2006 school bus crash in East Texas. The accident killed two Beaumont students. The state reacted quickly and passed Ashley and Alicia’s law requiring newly purchased school buses in Texas to be equipped with three-point seat belts.


Forman says bus crash victims were thrilled that lawmakers were finally doing something about school bus safety.


“We were excited,” he said at the hearing. “The system had worked. This Legislature was our hero.”


But their hero fell short.


“They apparently didn’t care about parent piece of mind or the safety of the children,” Forman testified.


Even though $10 million was earmarked for seat belts in school buses, districts could choose whether or not to apply for the seat belt grant money. Nearly 99 percent of them did not, according to the state.


“It was surprising,” said Texas Education Agency spokesperson DeEtta Culbertson.


Culbertson offered one scenario for why schools didn’t use the available funds.


“The grant required that the districts be purchasing new buses to add the seat belts,” Culbertson told News 88.7. “The school buses usually last a very long time. They’re very well built, they’re sturdy. And it did not apply to retrofitting any older school buses because that actually weakens the integrity of the bus seat."


While it’s possible some districts simply weren’t purchasing new buses, Sen. Charles Perry thinks it’s about something else.


“It’s a matter of priorities,” Perry said at the hearing. “And we, as legislature, seem to always be dealing with bad school board decisions.”


According to experts, it costs around $8,000 to $10,000 to install three-point seat belts in each newly purchased bus. That’s about $3,000 more than the cost of adding lap belts. Garcia says it’s not that districts can’t afford the belts — it’s an allocation issue.


“If school districts find way to spend money on multi-million dollar stadiums, multi-million dollar gymnasiums with all the bells and whistles on the score board, why can’t they buy buses with three-point seat belts?” Garcia said in an interview with News 88.7.


Nationwide, an average of six children a year have died in school bus crashes since 2006, according to federal data provided by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.


In recent years, federal safety groups have updated their seat belt recommendations, saying all school buses should have three-point seat belts.


Deborah Hersman, president and CEO of the National Safety Council, says all children should have the same level of protection across the board.


“The science and the data show us that the three-point belts are the best protection in all crash scenarios,” she says.


In September 2015, a Houston Independent School District bus plunged off an overpass and fell 21 feet. Sheanine Chatman’s daughter and one other student were killed. Two others were seriously injured. None were wearing a seat belt, according to federal investigators.


After the accident, the district decided all newly purchased buses would be equipped with three-point seat belts. Garcia says school districts shouldn’t wait for a tragedy before they take action.


“Every time we hear about a horrible [school bus] accident … it sheds a light. People respond," she says. "For example, Beaumont responded after their accident, and they’re doing it voluntarily. Houston responded after our accident. We cannot wait for the next accident. The time to do something is now.”


HISD says it has three-point belts in just over 5 percent of school buses. About 40 percent have lap belts. But over 50 percent of their fleet still has no belts at all.


It’s unclear whether seat belts could have prevented the death of Chatman’s daughter, but she would have given anything to have had that extra safety measure.


“I support this bill because I know seat belts save lives,” Chatman testified in Austin earlier this month. “I’m going to continue to advocate for bus safety and seat belts on all our Texas buses. I think every child should have a seat belt on a school bus.”


The bill is now headed to the full Senate for a vote. If passed, it would take effect this fall.


From Houston Public Media

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