NEWS-SENTINEL EDITORIAL: School districts taking safety into own hands

Should school buses have seat belts? To parents of children who ride buses, the answer may seem like a no-brainer.

But it has taken years of debate and failed legislation to finally get to the point where the same safety restraints that are required in the family car are used to protect our children who ride buses to school day after day.

Some school districts in Indiana are doing something on their own, and we think that’s a long-overdue step in the right direction.

The Fort Wayne Community Schools board on Monday unanimously approved purchasing 26 school buses and three activity buses equipped with seat belts.

Northwest Allen County Schools, Southwest Allen County Schools and East Allen County Schools have also taken steps to equip buses with seat belts.

Seat belts are already required by federal law on smaller school buses weighing less than 10,000 pounds. But Indiana representatives John Bartlett (D-Indianapolis) and Tony Cook (R-Cicero) have proposed legislation to require school districts to install the restraints on all buses, saying data show seat belts increase safety.

Their latest bill, HB 1377, died in this year’s session of the General Assembly.

Research has been mixed on whether seat belts make school buses safer, but support for their installation has grown among national transportation groups.

The National Transportation Safety Board is for the first time recommending all new school buses be equipped with lap and shoulder seat belts. The May board meeting drew attention to two school bus crashes in Baltimore City, Md., and Chattanooga, Tenn., both in November of 2016. The two crashes combined killed 12 and injured 37, prompting the NTSB special investigation.

The NTSB recommended that 42 states that don’t require lap and shoulder belts on large school buses should add such a requirement and that four other states upgrade their requirements from lap-only belts to lap and shoulder belts.

The failure of seat belt laws to pass in the Indiana Legislature may have to do with cost. The Indiana Department of Education has said installing seat belts on buses could cost $15,000 per bus, depending on the district, and some districts say they wouldn’t be able to pay for it.

FWCS says the cost of new school buses with seat belts approved this week will surpass $3 million.

Federal transportation officials have said four children die in school bus accidents in a typical year nationwide — multiple fatality crashes like the ones in Tennessee and Maryland are rare. And requiring seat belts nationwide, they say, would eliminate two of those four deaths. The cost of saving those two lives could be $124 million each, based on the expenses required to equip all buses with seat belts.

The 2016 bus crash in Tennessee was the impetus for Indiana Rep. Cook to support a state bill in last year’s legislative session.

“If we can prevent one death, it’s something well worth doing,” Cook, a former school superintendent from Cicero, told The Indianapolis Star.

That argument is apparently beginning to bear results, even if not in the state Legislature. We are pleased to see our school districts taking matters into their own hands.


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