ST. GEORGE —The National Safety Council is urging Congress to support the School Bus Safety Act of 2021, legislation the Washington County School District said represents economical and safety concerns.
The proposed legislation, designated S.2539 and HR 3381, would require K-12 districts across the country to equip their school buses with increased safety measures including lap and shoulder seat belts and an automatic emergency braking system.
The council’s campaign for the bill, which was introduced by U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Illinois) and Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tennessee), coincides with National School Bus Safety Week.
Steven Dunham, director of communications for the Washington County School District, told St. George News the district is unable to throw its support behind the proposed school bus legislation, citing security and economic concerns.
The district has a fleet of 120 buses that transport 17,000 kids to and from school each day. None of them is equipped with seat belts.
“First of all, I think it’s important to know that we are all for anything we can do to make children safer, whether they be in our schools or on our buses,” Dunham said. “However, putting seat belts on school buses seems to be more of an emotional issue.”
Seat belts on buses might exacerbate a situation “if a child is unable to get out of the bus independently,” Dunham said.
“Our biggest concern in this situation would be the event of a fire (where) a child would not be able to undo their seatbelt, or would panic and that extra restraint could cause a catastrophe,” he said.
Dunham said the district is confident in the engineering of school buses.
“(The design) protects students with closely spaced seats and with tall, energy-absorbing seat backs that are padded,” he said. “Research has proven that compartmentalization is very effective in a majority of the accidents that a school bus will encounter. The rare exception would be a rollover scenario.”
All legislation, no funding
The proposed school bus bill is also economically unfeasible, Dunham said, noting that the costs to retrofit the school buses with seat belts would be about $10,000 per bus.
“That would require us to find $1.2 million just to bring all of our school buses up to match the proposed code,” he said.
The other requirements of the School Bus Safety Act would make the price tag even higher. These include the automatic emergency braking system, an event data recorder for post-crash review, an Electronic Stability Control System and a firewall aimed at preventing flames and gas from moving from the engine to the passenger area.
However, according to Duckworth’s office, the proposed legislation would not impose these costs on any school district. It creates a grant program to help school districts defray potential costs that could arise. The legislation also does not apply to existing school buses, only newly manufactured vehicles.
A recent incident has put the safety of Washington County School District buses in the spotlight.
On Oct. 12, someone threw a soda bottle at a Washington County school bus from a truck headed in the opposite direction. The windshield shattered but the driver, who was en route to pick up 100 Riverside Elementary kindergarteners, maintained control of the vehicle and was able to arrive safely at their destination where they called in the incident.
Duham said the district has a good track record when it comes to school bus safety.
“Although we have had accidents, we typically don’t have casualties with the occupants of the bus, and I think that data speaks for itself.”
Ed. note: This report was revised to include a comment from the office of Sen. Tammy Duckworth clarifying funding for the legislation.
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