Commentary

Louisiana law requires you to buckle up — unless you’re a child on a school bus | Tammy C. Barney

June 30, 2021 10:30 am

School systems from Central and North Louisiana are delivering water to school systems in Southeast Louisiana “who indicated that that’s a need” to help get campuses shuttered by Hurricane Ida open. (Photo courtesy of Pexels)

A 7-30 vote in the Louisiana Senate this month killed HB 130, which would have required new school buses to be installed with seat belts for its young passengers. The Senate’s rejection came after the House had approved the bill introduced by Rep. Robby Carter (D-Amite) by a 55-44 vote.

Making school buses safer for our children should be a no-brainer. Children’s safety should be the state’s top priority. But here we are more than 20 years after a similar law was passed, and our school buses still are not required to have seatbelts.

We should be ashamed.

Louisiana approved a law in 1999 requiring occupant restraint systems in school buses, joining California, Florida, New Jersey, New York and Texas. There was just one catch: The Legislature had to provide funding, which never happened. Then in 2004, Carter introduced a successful bill that required every new school bus, and those already on the road,  to have seat belts installed. Unfortunately, Carter did not find a way to fund that bill, which was estimated to cost $34 million.

Realizing that price tag was too steep, Carter presented a compromise in this year’s bill. It would have allowed school districts to phase in seat belts as new buses entered the system, beginning Jan. 1, 2023. He thought the bill would have a better chance if it didn’t require school boards to spend extra money retrofitting old buses with seat belts.

Carter’s cost-cutting attempt solved one issue, but opponents to the bill brought up two more. Sen. J. Rodgers Pope (R-Denham Springs) said seat belts would make school buses less safe. “If, God forbid, there is an accident or something,” Pope said, “how are we going to get those kids off the bus if they’re all buckled in?”

Sen. Gary Smith (D-Norco) was concerned about the logistics. “Does this mean the school bus driver is going to have to stay stopped in the street and go back and buckle each student?” he asked. Or will there be “an additional aide on the bus who is buckling and unbuckling students?”

These solvable issues do not outweigh the need to keep our children safe – and alive.

Seat belts have been required in passenger cars since 1968. Laws requiring the use of seat belts in cars and light trucks have been enacted in 49 states and the District of Columbia. Louisiana law requires all adults and children aged 9 and older to wear seatbelts or appropriate restraints when riding in cars, trucks or vans. Children 2 to 8 years old must be buckled in a car seat or booster seat. All children under 2 must be in a rear-facing harness system.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) says “school buses are heavier and distribute crash forces differently than cars and light trucks.” In addition, NHTSA says school buses use of  “compartmentalization” with “strong, closely spaced seats with energy-absorbing seat backs” provide protection for front- or back-impact crashes. Adding seat belts would make school buses even safer, especially with lap-shoulder belts that protect students from side-impact crashes.

“If you’ve got 34 kids on a bus, and 33 of them are buckled in, and you have a wreck, I would rather one be flying around inside the bus than 34 of them ping ponging around inside,” Carter said.

National Safety Council data predicts seat belts on school buses would reduce severe injury in bus crashes by 50 percent. More than 75 percent of passengers in vehicles who survived an accident in 2019 were buckled up, according to the Council.

In May 2018, the National Transportation Safety Board recommended that all new school buses be equipped with lap-shoulder seat belts following a special investigation into two deadly crashes in 2016. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services both support mandating seat belts on school buses.

As a bonus, school districts have reported improved student behavior on school buses with seat belts. For example, the Bartholomew Consolidated School Corporation of Columbus, Ind., experienced 90-95 percent fewer write-ups for misbehaving students. Carter added that seat belts also would help school bus drivers get liability insurance.

A self-described realist, Carter actually is an uncover optimist. He plans to reintroduce the school bus seat belt bill during the next session. “We’re not looking out for children’s safety,” he said, “if we’re not even offering seat belts on the bus.”

I hope Carter keeps fighting until every child riding a school bus can buckle up.

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Tammy C. Barney
Tammy C. Barney

Award-winning columnist Tammy Carter Barney earned a bachelor's degree in journalism from Loyola University New Orleans before starting her career at The Daily Comet in Thibodaux. She covered city government and education, wrote a column and was the first Black woman to work as the paper's managing editor. She worked at The Times-Picayune as a bureau chief, assistant city editor, TV editor and columnist and while there earned a MBA from Tulane University. She left The Times-Picayune for The Orlando Sentinel, where she served as an editor and wrote a weekly column for the lifestyle section. Her writing has won her multiple awards, including the prestigious Vernon Jarrett Award for Journalistic Excellence for a series of columns on the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. In addition to writing, Tammy is passionate about quilting and singing with the Franklin Avenue Baptist Church Praise Team and Contemporary Choir. She also serves as chair of the New Orleans Human Rights Commission. For 17 years, Tammy was married to the late Keith G. Barney. She has one daughter and one granddaughter.

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