Last week state Rep. Bruce Hunter (D-Des Moines) has offered House File 35, a bill to require all new school buses ordered for purchase after July 1 to have seat belts. If enacted, the bill would also require school bus drivers and passengers to use seat belts and safety restraints while traveling in those buses.
A violation of the seat belt law would be a simple misdemeanor with a scheduled $50 fine for each seat belt not installed. Failure to use them would result in a fine of $100 for each offense.
The bill also curiously includes a provision to extend current Iowa child restraint laws for passenger vehicles to school buses that have seat belts. This could mean the use of car seats and booster seats may be required for young children who ride in school buses, if the bill is passed.
Hunter’s bill also includes a provision that prevents school districts from ignoring the legislation if no funding is provided for its implementation. The additional cost for seat belts in school buses has been estimated at approximately $10,000 for each new bus purchased.
The National Safety Council says modern school buses are very safe – up to 40 times safer than the average family car – and that seat belts do not function in school buses the same way they do in passenger cars. That is because buses are much heavier and the passengers are much higher up in buses.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration studied the issue a number of years ago and concluded that installing seat belts provides “little to no impact on safety.” A similar study by the University of Alabama came to the same conclusion.
Some school bus driver unions across the U.S. have said that while seat belts may provide better safety in the rare instances of crashes, they can be problematic in the case where the bus must be quickly evacuated, such as in a fire. The seat belts themselves can become weapons, as well, the drivers said.
The National Education Association is in opposition to seat belt requirements for school buses. Instead, it has pressed for more “administrative support” to maintain discipline and bus aides to assist drivers in supervising student passengers.
Blank Children’s Hospital and the Iowa Coalition Against Sexual Assault have both declared their support for HF 35. The Iowa State Education Association and School Administrators of Iowa are both currently undecided on the proposed legislation.