New state law requires seatbelts in school buses

Gilroy
– A new state law that goes into effect this year will require
every school bus to come equipped with seatbelts, costing the
district anywhere between $1,500 to $2,000 more for a new bus.
Gilroy – A new state law that goes into effect this year will require every school bus to come equipped with seatbelts, costing the district anywhere between $1,500 to $2,000 more for a new bus.

Beginning July 1, every bus purchased by school districts in California will be required to come equipped with shoulder-lap belts, reducing passenger capacity from up to 87 passengers to 54 in each bus, said Darren Salo, GUSD’s transportation supervisor.

“The problem is, we have routes that transport up to 80 students, and now the bus capacity is 54, but there’s still 80 students that we need to get to and from school,” Salo said. “And that’s more fuel, more emissions.”

The new buses will cost about $142,000. Along with the upfront installation costs, adding the belts will tack on another $100 to $500 per bus annually for repair, replacement and maintenance. Districts are not allowed to retrofit their current buses to equip them with new belts.

To help offset the costs and compensate for lessened capacity, Salo said the district has a couple of options. It could increase the current walking distance for passengers to their bus stops, which is no more than one mile for students in kindergarten through fifth grade and no more than two miles for students in 6th through 12th grades. Or, the district could hire more drivers or purchase more buses.

But because the state does not require districts to provide transportation, the state does not provide funding for it, forcing districts to take from their general funds to pay for all transportation-related costs.

Last year, the district toyed with the idea of charging a fee for transporting students. But in the end, Salo said, the numbers didn’t pan out.

By law, if students qualify for free or reduced lunches, they qualify for free transportation, which Salo said is 75 percent of students who ride buses in GUSD. Assuming that 10 percent of the remaining 25 percent of riders would choose to find alternate routes or have their parents drive them, that would stick 10 percent of riders with paying for all riders.

The Morgan Hill Unified School District charges riders between $270 and $600 annually for a two-way package, depending on the number of riders in the family, which comes out to between $1.50 and $3.33 per day.

“But Morgan Hill is a different situation,” Salo said. “It’s more affluent.”

GUSD likely won’t need to purchase new buses for a while, as the average large bus lasts 20 years, and the oldest bus in the district was manufactured in 1997. But once it does need a new one, there will need to be some decision-making as to which kids get to ride the bus with the belts.

“If you purchase a new bus, and it has seatbelts, who chooses the route?” Salo said. “Every parent will say, ‘I want my child to ride on that bus.’ “

Currently, most of the district’s school buses are manufactured using a passive restraint seat safety system called compartmentalization. If a crash occurs, compartmentalization is intended to protect passengers by creating a space, or compartment, of safety that will absorb the impact of the crash. With compartmentalization, one seat can hold up to three passengers. Seats with the new shoulder-lap belts can only hold two.

The belts are just like seatbelts in cars, reaching from one shoulder across the body to the opposite hip, with a separate belt stretching across the lap. Law currently requires only small buses to be equipped with the belts, because special needs children who ride those buses can’t always hold their bodies up on their own.

The original law requiring shoulder-lap belts was passed in 1999, but the effect was postponed to allow manufacturers time to build the new vehicles. Four other states – Florida, Louisiana, New Jersey and New York – have adopted lap-belt laws, but California is the first to require shoulder-lap belts.

There is no law requiring passengers to wear the belts, nor is there a law holding bus drivers liable for use or non-use of the belts.

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