Representatives aim for bus seatbelts
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Representatives aim for bus seatbelts

Date: January 30, 2007
By: Gavin Off
State Capitol Bureau
Links: HB 110

JEFFERSON CITY - A Tuesday morning school bus crash involving 26 students in the St. Louis area prompted Rep. Sam Page, D-St. Louis County, to renew his call for requiring new school buses to have seat belt.

According to the Missouri Highway Patrol, the school bus struck a car and rolled over at around 8 a.m. on Missouri Route 30 in Jefferson County. None of the students was seriously injured. The bus driver was hospitalized.

The car, whose driver was also hospitalized, apparently crossed the road's center line, said Highway Patrol Sgt. Al Nothum. Nothum said the bus rolled on its left side and slid down an embankment after it swerved to avoid the car.

"This is a tragic example of why we need to pass House Bill 110," Page said.

Page and Rep. Timothy Flook, R-Liberty, have proposed a bill to add a $15 surcharge to moving traffic violations to help school districts fund seat belts on new school buses. The project could cost between $6,000 and $7,000 per bus, Flook said.

Under the bill, schools could phase in the new lap-shoulder seat belt-equipped buses beginning Jan. 1, 2008.

"They won't have to replace their entire fleet at once," Flook said. "It allows us to phase in new safety measures without bankrupting the budget."

In the fall of 2005, Gov. Matt Blunt had called on legislators to require seat belts on new busses.  But the idea met with stiff resistance from opponents who argued it would impose a financial burden on schools without significantly improving safety.  There also were arguments that if not used correctly, the belts could cause injury.

Two bills filed in the 2006 session to mandate belts never got out of the House Transportation Committee .

Flook said he began to champion school bus safety in May 2005, when a Liberty Public School District bus careened through an intersection and rolled over, injuring several students, two permanently. The crash killed the drivers of two separate vehicles.

Flook said the Liberty wreck mirrored national statistics, which state that roll over wrecks typically injure 75 percent of students on board the bus.

"Once you roll over, the child is no longer like a child sitting in a seat," Flook said. "The child is essentially like a tennis ball inside of a dryer rolling around."

After the wreck, Flook served on the state's School Bus Safety Task Force. He later discovered that the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration doesn't test bus safety in roll over crashes. It also doesn't test the safety of seating three students per seat, which many school districts do, Flook said.

"Right then we found out there was two gaping holes to their testing," Flook said. "Either they don't want to know the answer or they're too dumb to know they need to test them."

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, there was an annual average of 17,000 school bus-related injuries between 2001 and 2003. Ninety-seven percent of the students injured were treated and released from area hospitals, the report stated.

Alan Ross, president of the National Coalition for School Bus Safety, said school bus wrecks are a "fairly common problem."

Ross said six school bus-related wrecks -- including the one in Jefferson County -- were reported across the nation by Thursday afternoon. One was just a fender-bender, Ross said.

"It's a very dangerous vehicle," Ross said. "It's hard to steer. This vehicle is an antique."

Ross said he became interested in school bus safety about a decade ago, when he rode on his son's kindergarten bus. His son noticed the bus lacked seat belts. Ross, who later contacted the school's principal, said he thought the missing seat belts were simply an oversight.

He was mistaken.

So far, only five states -- New Jersey, New York, Florida, California and Louisiana -- require seat belts on school buses.

Brent Ghan, spokesman for the Missouri School Boards' Association, said the association historically has not favored mandatory seat belts on school buses.

Not only has research been mixed as to whether seat belts increase a student's safety, but Ghan also said it is unclear if the proposed funding mechanism could fully pay for the new belts.

"When you're talking about something like traffic tickets, that's something unpredictable," Ghan said. "Kids traveling by school bus is still by far the safest way for them to get to school."

But Rep. Sally Faith, R-St. Charles, said she's optimistic Missouri could soon join the list of states requiring buses to have seat belts.

"I think the way to eat an elephant is one bite at a time," Faith said. "It's just now getting its momentum. It takes a while to get everything passed."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.