Buckle up. A push to require seat belts on school buses is gaining momentum nationally and in the Maryland legislature — but the pushback from school systems likely will be over how to fund such a mandate.
State Sen. Jim Brochin said he plans to introduce a bill to make seat belts mandatory on school buses statewide to safeguard children, because, "Without seat belts, these kids become projectiles — literally crash test dummies."
Brochin is advocating such a law at a time when the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration is recommending that all school buses are equipped with three-point seat belts.
"The position of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is that seat belts save lives," NHTSA Administrator Mark Rosekind said last month, according to published reports.
According to the NHTSA, 327 school-age children died in school transportation-related accidents between 2004 and 2013, the most recent year for which data is available. Fifty four of those were passengers on school transportation vehicles.
Six states — California, Florida, Louisiana, New Jersey, New York, and Texas — now require seat belts on school buses. In Maryland, only buses that weigh less than 10,000 pounds have mandatory seat belts, because that is required but federal law, said Leon Langley, director of pupil transportation for the Maryland Department of Education. But buses under 10,000 pounds are few and far between in the state, Langley said. Some buses for special education students also have seat belts, but that is up to individual school districts, Langley said.
Brochin said he did not have statistics on how many children have been injured or killed in Maryland while riding school buses. The most publicized case in recent years was in October 2013, when a school bus flipped over in the 10800 block of Greenspring Avenue in Baltimore County. Ten students from Pikesville Middle School climbed out through the roof to escape. The bus did not have seat belts and the accident sent five students and the bus driver to area hospitals with minor injuries, The Sun reported at the time.
If passed, the seat belt law would be phased in over four or five years, Brochin said. He said he is hoping for a combination of state and local funding, "so it's not an unfunded mandate," and that Gov. Larry Hogan's decision not to fund the Red Line will free up money that could be used for belts on buses.
Currently, decisions on whether to install seat belts on school buses are left to local school boards. It is not clear which state agency would oversee administration and enforcement of a statewide seat belt law. It most likely would come under the purview of the Motor Vehicle Administration's school bus compliance division, but the Department of Education might play a role in helping local jurisdictions come up with "best practices," including getting children to wear their seat belts, Langley said.
Such a law could impact the future purchase of new buses by school systems, because of capacity and seating configuration issues based on a seat belt requirement, said Langley, who is also director of the Baltimore-based National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services.
Brochin said he would expect oversight of such a law to be a shared responsibility between the state Departments of Transportation and Education, with Transportation taking the lead. However, Brochin stressed that he only wants to set a timetable for installation of seat belts, and doesn't want to take control away from local school boards.
"Just because we pass a state law, we're not going to tell the locals how to (implement) it," Brochin said.
The Department of Education has not taken a position on mandatory seat belts on school buses, spokesman Bill Reinhard said. But he added, "It has certainly been discussed at the department level."
The issue is also on the radar of the Baltimore County school system.
"Our transportation staff is working with the Maryland State Department of Education (MSDE) and other school systems to review and
research several school bus safety proposals." spokesman Mychael Dickerson said in an email Tuesday. "My understanding is that
seat belts on buses are part of those discussions and will continue to be."
Dickerson said the safety of students and staff is "our top priority."
The potential economic impact of a seat belt requirement is unclear, because of factors ranging from how and over what period of time such a law would be phased in, whether it would pertain only to new buses, and whether it would require retrofitting of existing buses.
Brochin said outfitting school buses with seat belts would cost anywhere from $8,000 to $16,000, and that he would seek grants from the state Department of Transportation.
Langley estimates it would cost about $8,000 per bus for seat belts on new buses, which would equate to about $6.4 million for the current 8,000 buses in school systems statewide. Buses have a life cycle of about 12 years, he said.
The cost of retrofitting existing buses is less clear. Reinhard said it would depend on factors such as whether seats would have to be moved.
"There are all sorts of (retrofitting) permutations," he said.
Langley said one option is replacing just the backs of seats in buses when installing seat belts, and that there are companies that do it. But he said individual school systems would have to study their options carefully.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates it costs $5,485 to $7,346 to outfit a single school bus with seat belts, based on the number of seats and whether a lap belt or shoulder-and-lap belt is installed.
Broch in said it might not be necessary to retrofit existing buses, but that he hasn't thought it through that far.
"Details like this are going to come out in a hearing," when the bill is introduced, he said.
There is consensus that whatever the cost would be, it would be high. Brochin said he knows the biggest issue will be funding.
Langley, speaking as president of the association and not on behalf of the Department of Education, said he personally would favor full lap and shoulder belts, called three-point belts, at least on new buses, and that mandatory seat belts would increase ridership on buses — and indirectly reduce traffic by taking cars off the road — because parents would be more comfortable about letting their children ride the buses if they had seat belts.
But he cautioned that for legislators and educators, "It's going to be the question of how are you going to fund it? There's a lot of benefits, but it ain't cheap."
One longtime supporter of mandatory seat belts is Maryland Insurance Commissioner Al Redmer Jr,, a former state delegate and a resident of Middle River in Baltimore County. Redmer said he introduced a similar bill unsuccessfully in 1998 as a delegate and that local school boards around the state shot it down, arguing partly that it was too costly.
"In the end, it was all about the money," he said.
Redmer said some opponents cited studies suggesting that children were actually safer on buses without seat belts.
Langley said school buses are the safest vehicles in the nation, "even without the belts," but would be "even safer" with them.
Redmer, whose failed bill is now 17 years old, was happy to hear that Brochin is tackling the issue again in the Maryland General Assembly.
"I'm just glad that after 17 years, Jim Brochin agrees with me," he said.