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In a bind over seat belts

Price tag of new safety law could mean fewer kids ride bus to school

By Jocelyn Wiener, Sacrament Bee Thursday, December 9, 2004

2006 San Diego Update

Staci Gardiner has a new nightmare. In it, she maneuvers her large mustard-color bus with 47 students aboard onto a small Delta ferry. Then something bad happens. And everyone is wearing seat belts.

"You would have to write us all off," Gardiner, a driver for the River Delta Unified School District, said last week as she parked on the boat next to a box containing dozens of children's life preservers.

"What if we couldn't get off?" asked Jorge Navarro, a round-cheeked fifth-grader.

A new law has others in the school transportation community echoing Jorge's concerns. On July 1, California will become the first state to require lap-shoulder belts on all new school buses. That seemingly innocuous legislation - who's going to argue against schoolchildren wearing seat belts? - pits school officials against safety advocates and parents in a debate that sharply illustrates the burden that busing students places on financially strapped school districts.

The law's proponents contend that lap-shoulder belts are long overdue. Each year, about six children nationwide die in school bus crashes and thousands are injured. Advocates say belts could protect those students and keep the more rambunctious ones in their seats. They dismiss Gardiner's nightmare scenario.

"Oh, you mean they'll be better off if they're thrown out of the bus and the bus lies down on them?" asked Stephanie M. Tombrello, of SafetyBeltSafe USA, a national nonprofit dedicated to child passenger safety. "If they're healthy and not dead, you'll have a better chance of working out an evacuation plan."

But school officials argue buses are already the safest form of transportation and that adding seat belts will not improve that record. Buses manufactured under the new criteria will carry one-third fewer students and cost up to $7,000 more. Critics say the price of carrying fewer students at a greater cost will force districts to cut back on the number of students they transport.

Statistically, those children - most of whom will walk, bike or drive - are far more likely to be hurt on the way to school than children riding the bus.

The cost of transporting students has long confounded school officials. Districts receive on average only 46 cents on the dollar for transportation, and the new law offers no additional money for seat belts. It doesn't even require that riders use them - only that new buses have them.

Last year, River Delta Unified spent $902,000 on transportation, and received $608,000 from the state. Elk Grove Unified spent $10 million and received $3.3 million. Natomas Unified School District spent $2 million. Its reimbursement: $150,000.

Hoping to stave off the financial pain, many districts are rushing to buy buses before January. After that date, sellers say they can't guarantee manufacture before the new law goes into effect on July 1. California's 1,056 school districts buy about 1,000 new buses every year.

"It's an underfunded program and they're adding extra costs," said Doug Snyder, government relations chairman for the California Association of School Transportation Officials, of the new law.

Snyder doesn't mind the idea of seat belts - he believes they could keep the 15 percent of California schoolchildren who ride buses safer. But he worries what might be sacrificed.

"They should be figuring out ways to get more children to ride school buses rather than figuring out the way to get children off of school buses," he said.

The decision to put seat belts on buses came after decades of parental pressure. As the public became accustomed to seat belts in cars, the absence of seat belts on school buses became more noticeable. The California State PTA began advocating for them in the 1980s.

Originally passed in 1999, the seat belt law has been postponed over the years to allow manufacturers time to adapt their vehicles. Four other states have lap-belt laws, but California was the first to call for the lap-shoulder belts, which work in buses just as they do in automobiles.

High costs are forcing urban districts, including Elk Grove, to scale back their bus service dramatically. But drastic cuts aren't an option for a rural district like River Delta, which transports about 1,040 children across 500 square miles in Sacramento, Yolo and Solano counties.

Without buses, Jorge and others living in small trailers and modest houses alongside sprawling farmland properties would have no ride to school. Twice each day, bus No. 20 transports them on a ferry across the glistening Sacramento River. Perhaps no other bus in California can claim such a boat ride. But the kids - flirting, gossiping, studying, squirming - hardly notice.

"It's a good idea," Jorge said. "So people cannot go like this." He banged his head against the seat in front of him.

"Or get in trouble," his friend Clarisa said. She demonstrated by standing up in the aisle.

"Clarisa, get out of the aisle," Gardiner, the bus driver, said.

During her five years on the route, she's watched these children grow - from timid kindergartners to flirtatious middle-schoolers. Jorge used to scream and hide when she pulled up. Now he doesn't stop talking.

As River Delta struggles to accommodate increasing transportation costs, some children on Gardiner's route might lose their lift home. Maria DaCruz, district transportation director, is considering increasing the distances for "walkers" to one mile for kindergarten through third grade, two miles for middle school, three miles for high school. If kids live closer, they won't get a ride.

"The more kids I have walking, the more concerns I have," DaCruz said.

Wade Derr, director of Natomas' transportation department, said he has "very, very serious doubts" about the seat belt law. He estimates districts will pay an additional $2,000 a year to maintain the new buses. "There are lots of other areas where students are at much more risk," he said.

In an accident, DaCruz worries that drivers might have to cut frantic children from seat belts, significantly slowing evacuation time. She wonders if kids who now slash seat backs will move on to the belts; once a belt is cut, the seat cannot be occupied until the belt is replaced.

James Johnson, director of sales for SafeGuard Seating Systems, which designed the new belts, said such concerns are unfounded. New belts cost $35 apiece and take 15 minutes to replace, he said. And tests conducted in California and around the country have shown that children wearing lap-shoulder belts can easily exit in an emergency.

School officials also think parents will complain when some buses have seat belts and others don't. That's an issue likely to last for a while: The law doesn't require buses to be retrofitted with belts, so districts can use their current vehicles for years before purchasing new ones.

Or they can buy now and beat the new law. Jim Reynolds, vice president and general manager of A-Z Bus Sales Inc., which has an office in Sacramento, said he has seen a 12 percent to 15 percent increase in orders since September. Many districts want just a couple, he said, but a few have requested up to a dozen. Demand for used ones also has jumped.

As a girl, Gardiner rode the bus to school along the same winding Delta roads she now drives. She never imagined she'd return.

She loves the route from Rio Vista to Ryer Island - the fields lined with pear, apple and cherry trees that blossom pink and white in spring. For Christmas and Easter, Gardiner brings the children cookies, pencils and Cheetos Flamin' Hot. They bring her flowers, tamales and fresh tortillas.

At her final stop last week, she watched a first-grader arrive safely in her mother's arms. Heading home, Gardiner laughed at Jorge's description of his fantasy bus - a rocketship with massage chairs and satellite TV.

"Air conditioning, sure I'd love that, too," she said. "But that's never gonna happen. The state of California doesn't seem to have a lot of money, not for transportation anyway."

Buses buckling down

School districts gradually are getting on board with seat belts

By Helen Gao, San Diego Tribuen, December 12, 2006

School buses without seat belts have been the norm for years, but slowly that's changing.

The San Diego Unified School District recently bought 25 new buses with lap-and-shoulder belts similar to the safety restraints found in cars. The district plans to buy 10 more such buses in February.

The Poway Unified School District has ordered 15 new buses with lap-and-shoulder belts. It already has some with lap belts.

Last year, the Chula Vista Elementary School District bought six buses with lap-and-shoulder belts.

The Oceanside Unified School District purchased nine buses in the past two years. It's getting two more soon and plans on adding 13 next year. The district began using buses with lap belts in 1993.

Under California law, lap-and-shoulder belts are required on large school buses built after July 1, 2005. Large buses are defined as those seating 16 or more.

Smaller school buses made after July 1, 2004, must have the same safety feature. California is the only state with such a requirement. Other states with seat belt requirements – such as New York, Florida and New Jersey – mandate only lap belts on school buses.

But school buses with seat belts are still relatively rare because of the slow pace of vehicle replacement in California. It could take years, if not decades, before every student on a bus is buckled in.

The 25 new buses in San Diego Unified make up 5 percent of its fleet.

Aliyah Johnson, 9, a fourth-grader at Longfellow School in Clairemont, doesn't mind wearing a seat belt.

“I like it because it makes me feel more safe. Sometimes, you would see on the news the bus flip over and you don't stay in your seat,” she said.

Safer rides

School buses equipped with safety belts are becoming more common in California despite concerns about costs and benefits. That's because state law says buses seating 16 or more kids must have lap-and-shoulder belts if they were built after July 1, 2005. Smaller buses must have lap-and-shoulder belts if they were made after July 1, 2004.

Magdalena Tavasci, principal of Longfellow, where most students ride the bus to school, said seat belts also help drivers maintain order. Strapped in, students can't roam the bus or jump on the seats during transit.

“Bus drivers have had to stop the bus and have the students sit down because kids have gotten out of their seats,” she said.

Transportation officials in the region said there has not been an outcry from parents for seat belts because school buses have a strong safety record.

“They just feel comfortable with the way things are going. We just haven't had any major accidents or anything,” said Dennis Smarsty, Oceanside Unified's transportation director. According to a 2002 study by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 10 people a year on average die inside a school bus. Driver fatalities make up 25 percent of the deaths.

In contrast, about 800 children are killed a year in private cars during school commute hours, according to a 2002 study by the Transportation Research Board. Riding a school bus is nearly eight times safer than riding in a car driven by parents or guardians, the national safety administration study said.

School buses are safer because riders sit above the usual point of crash impact. Seats are closely spaced, and students are sandwiched between high-backed, well-cushioned seats designed to absorb impact during a crash. The size of the bus also helps.

“The kids are traveling somewhat in an egg crate because they are compartmentalized,” said Alexandra Robinson, transportation director for San Diego Unified.

Whether school buses should be equipped with seat belts has long been debated. Not all industry officials believe that seat belts are beneficial or cost-effective.

In fact, lap belts can do more harm than good. Robin Leeds, an industry specialist with the National School Transportation Association, said a rider belted at the lap would jack knife at the waist in an accident and could suffer neck, head, stomach and spinal injuries as the upper torso whipped forward and back.

While lap-and-shoulder belts are considered superior, they are only effective if students wear them properly. Jim Scott, a bus driver for the San Diego district, said some students put the shoulder straps underneath their arm, and he has to correct them.

The cost of buses with seat belts is another major concern.

Robinson estimated that buses with lap-and-shoulder belts cost $12,000 more per vehicle. Also, the district's 25 new buses, with a price tag of $2.16 million, accommodate fewer students because the belts required seat reconfigurations.

A large yellow school bus without seat belts can hold up to 66 students, but with belts, the capacity is reduced to 50. That means more buses and drivers are needed to transport the same number of students.


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Last modified: December 12, 2006

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