State Rep. Robert L. Kosowski last month introduced two bills to the Michigan House with the same goal — requiring seat belts on new school buses — and both remain in the House Transportation Committee. HB 5436, or “The Pupil Transportation Act,” would mandate that all new school buses provide a seat belt for every pupil, yet does not specify if it must be a lap belt or a lap/shoulder belt.
An accompanying bill, HB 5437, would allow districts with voter-approved sinking funds to use these monies to buy school buses equipped with seat belts.
Under current law, sinking fund millages are used for purchasing property and the construction or repair of school buildings. But if districts do not have sinking funds, they would need voters to approve setting up this fund or approve drawing operational funds to cover the cost of installing seat belts on buses.
The proposed legislation would present a funding dilemma for districts that contract with intermediate school districts for transportation, said Dan Danosky, superintendent of the Livingston Educational Service Agency, as intermediate districts cannot seek sinking funds under state law.
“I firmly believe that our children’s safety is probably more important than anything that we can do in a school system. That’s why I came up with that,” said Rep. Kosowski, the sponsor of both bills. “What’s one more second to make sure they get a belt on and everybody’s safe?”
He added that students should be required to wear seat belts on school buses just like they are in family vehicles.
The debate over whether occupant restraint systems are needed on school buses was reignited last July after the National Transportation Safety Board recommended that school transportation industry associations advise their members to consider three-point belts, rather than two-point lap belts, when purchasing school buses with occupant restraint systems.
This past February NASDPTS published a position paper that updated its position on three-point belts, offering its full support for implementing occupant restraint systems regardless of cost.
However, NAPT and NSTA have not changed their stance, saying they won’t follow NTSB guidance on seat belts "until the significant and conflicting policy differences between the two federal safety agencies (NHTSA and NTSB) are resolved, hopefully with the added science of dynamic crash testing that is customary and routine for all other motor vehicle recommendations and requirements.”
The associations' letter also addressed the recent NHTSA decision that mandates three-point, lap-shoulder belts for passenger and driver seats on all new motorcoaches beginning in 2016. Both the news media and general public raised the question: Why motorcoaches but not school buses? NAPT and NSTA said they are prepared to explain that school buses, motorcoaches and the family car are very different vehicles from a crashworthiness perspective — and school buses are the most safe because of their design and, specifically, compartmentalization.
The question Michigan lawmakers are facing right now is: Should school districts be forced to install seat belts in all of their new school buses? Currently just six states have answered yes to this question, and only four have been able to fund the actual implementation.