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Lawmaker proposes safety belts on school buses

Published On: Sep 09 2013 06:35:06 PM CDT   Updated On: Sep 09 2013 07:25:17 PM CDT

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A state lawmaker says your child's school bus needs to be safer. He's revived a bill to put seat belts in school buses.

The state law wouldn't require the retrofitting of old buses, but would require every new school bus purchased in the state to have seat belts installed. The bill follows recent rollover bus crashes in Illinois and Indiana that sent students to the hospital. It's being circulated by Janesville Sen. Tim Cullen and is an extension of a policy passed while he was on the school board in that city. Right now, Janesville is the only school district in the state with a policy that states new buses have seat belts installed.

"Since 2009 we haven't had any problem," said Kevin Murray, a Janesville School Board member. "We haven't had any accidents, but we haven't had any issues with the policy of kids using belts as weapons or anything like that so it's been a good policy."

Children using the large buckles from the belts as weapons has been one of the concerns of having safety belts in buses, as well as whether bus drivers could get small children unbuckled quickly if there was a different type of emergency.

The Janesville School District has purchased 20 new buses since 2009 at an additional cost of $11,000 over buses not equipped with safety belts.

Overall, UW Transportation Engineering Professor David Noyce said buses don't have belts because the buses are very safe. The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration says on average, only six students die in school bus crashes each year, which is only .3 percent of the total highway fatalities in the country.

"The design of school buses have something called compartmentalization," said Noyce. "What that means is the seats are tall and they are padded and that allows them for front impacts for a soft landing, if you will, for the students in the bus."

Noyce said that protection doesn't apply in rollovers or side-impact crashes, which are sparking this latest debate.

Currently, the Wisconsin Association of School Boards has a policy opposing legislation to require safety belts in buses, because of some of these concerns. Murray has a resolution before the Janesville School Board Tuesday night that would formally ask WASB to change that policy, and support Cullen's bill.

"To me, it boils down to preventative measures and ensuring more safety for our children," said Murray.

Cullen's bill would provide a grant program to allow all school districts to get money to help cover costs, so it's unknown what the total cost of the bill could be.

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