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New bus belt law will strap schools

By John Hall

After July 1, all new “Big Yellow Buses” delivered in California must be equipped with three-point passenger restraints n lap-and-shoulder seatbelts.

“Buses purchased from now on will have to have seatbelts,” Renee Link, bus supervisor for Calaveras Unified School District´s transportation department, said, “but current buses will not have to be retrofitted with seatbelts.”

The smaller, Type II n 10,000 pounds or less gross vehicle weight, usually 20 passengers or fewer n buses have had to have lap-and-shoulder restraints since July 1, 2004. The seatbelt requirement for new Type I n more than 10,000 pounds gross vehicle weight, normally 20-passenger capacity or greater n buses goes into effect July 1 this year.

Although most of Calaveras County´s school districts are not planning to purchase new buses in the immediate future, at some point all will have to look at replacing vehicles in their fleets. The seatbelt regulation will impact their budgets in a number of ways.

Seatbelts reduce a bus´ capacity by about a third, so an 84-passenger bus with lap-and-shoulder belts can carry about 56 students, Bret Harte Union High School District Transportation Director Patti Reid said.

The “compartmentalization” system currently used n in which high, padded seat backs and 24-inch spacing between seat backs form “compartments” to provide passenger safety on buses n allows each passenger about 13 inches of seat room.

“You can fit smaller kids three to a seat. With seatbelts, you are restricted to two passengers to a seat,” Reid said. “Our buses, right now, are at about their limits. If you have 66 kids on a route now and the bus is limited to 56 passengers, you are going to have to have another means of transporting those other 10 kids.”

“We are going to have to come up with creative ways to operate our buses,” Link said.

With the difficulty the district has getting drivers for the buses it already has, Link does not see putting additional buses on routes now being served by one bus as a viable solution. One option might be to break up routes by grade levels, transporting grades kindergarten through 6 at one time, grades 7 and 8 n middle school n at another time and high school at yet another time. However, this would mean different start times for schools, and the extra mileage on the buses would increase maintenance concerns, she said.

“There are ways to deal with the problem, and we will deal with it,” Link said. “We live in a rural area. We do not have a public transportation system capable of handling 4,000 kids a day.”

One of the issues the new law will bring up will be new buses with seatbelts versus old buses without seatbelts, Mark Twain Union Elementary School District Superintendent Rick Brewer said.

“Parents´ concern will be why some children have seatbelts and other don´t,” he said.

Reid echoed that thought.

“If a district gets a bus with belts and it is put on a route, how do you respond to the parents on the other five routes when they ask ‘Why doesn´t our bus have seatbelts?´ how do you justify that?” Reid said.

In that scenario, she said, a district might be faced with two options: buy all new buses or retrofit the older ones.

“Bret Harte has seven buses that would need to be retrofitted if all had to have seatbelts,” she noted.

A Virginia Department of Planning and Budget fiscal impact statement in 2001 estimated the cost to retrofit a school bus with safety belts and shoulder harnesses at $8,800, while adding $1,200-$1,500 to the cost of a new bus, according to the Commonwealth Educational Policy Institute of Virginia Commonwealth University.

New large-capacity buses, without seatbelts, cost about $125,000 each.

With reduced seating capacities, school districts will face other costs: additional bus purchases, increased maintenance, and personnel to drive and maintain the vehicles.

“Transportation is already grossly under-funded (by the state),” Brewer said, noting that the state covers about one-quarter of the costs of transportation in his district. “That´s why we started charging bus fees n to try to recover part of that.

“We will probably not be purchasing any new buses for a couple years,” he added.

Brewer and the district´s transportation coordinator, Bill Davis, will have to talk about things like purchasing new buses, retrofitting older buses and any need for additional buses, he said.

“We have no plans to purchase new buses at this time,” Link said. “We will add new buses as needed.

“More than half of our fleet is pretty aged,” she added.

“We could always use new buses, but the money is not in the budget,” Reid said.

Vallecito Union School District will discuss replacement of one of its buses at the next meeting of its governing board at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday at Albert Michelson Elementary School in Murphys.

In a May 7, 2002 report to Congress, the U.S. Department of Transportation´s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration concluded that requiring lap belts on large school buses would seem to provide little, if any, benefit in reducing serious or fatal injuries in severe frontal crashes. In fact, it said, tests indicated that in some severe frontal crashes there might be increased risk of serious neck or abdominal injuries among young passengers wearing lap belts. According to the transportation safety agency, about 11 children a year are killed in accidents involving school buses nationwide.

“It´s a good thing to have seatbelts on buses, but we have a darn good safety record,” Link said. “We have had no serious injuries for as long as I´ve been here n since 1977. I have mixed emotions about them.”

Contact John Hall

Reprinted with permission fromCalaveras Enterprise