When a school bus crashes, upset parents may ask, “Why aren’t my children wearing seat belts on the bus?”
Some state lawmakers are listening. California, Florida, Louisiana, New Jersey, New York and Texas have passed mandatory school bus safety restraint statutes. Earlier this year, the Arkansas General Assembly did, too. But Arkansas's new school bus seat belt law is no cinch.
First off, says Jerry Owens, senior transportation manager with the Arkansas Division of Public School Academic Facilities and Transportation, Arkansas's law, which takes effect January 1st, stipulates that new or leased buses must be equipped with seat belts, not used buses.
“What is provided in this statute is a subsection," Owens recites, directly from the law, "that says if a petition, signed by at least 10 percent of a school district’s qualified electors, is submitted to the school district requesting that school buses be equipped with passenger restraint systems, the school district shall propose to levy an additional annual ad valorem property tax on the assessed value of taxable real, personal, or utility property as authorized by Arkansas Constitution, for the cost of purchasing, installing, and maintaining the passenger restraint systems required under that law.”
In effect, the law allows Arkansas districts to slowly phase costly safety restraints. House Bill 1002 was sponsored by State Rep. Mark McElroy (D-Tillar) and co-sponsored by State Sen. David Wallace (R-Leachville).
Owens says he’s been monitoring Fayetteville Public Schools, which recently purchased with district- approved discretionary funding, a fleet of 10 new standard school buses equipped with retractable shoulder harness.
Asbell Elementary school students scramble aboard one of the new buses and buckle up for the ride home. Substitute school bus driver, Freeman Hafen, who also serves as district mechanic, makes a game of it: boys on one side of the bus, girls on the other.
“Show of hands!” he shouts. “Who’s got their seat belt on first?”
"We do!" the boys yell.
“It's a game we like to play everyday before we leave the school,” Hafen says. The competition, he says, gets them loaded and secured on the bus quicker.
“To my knowledge we are the first district in Arkansas to have seat belts on regular education buses,” says Mike McClure, assistant director of transportation services for Fayetteville Public Schools.
The buses come with air conditioning, surveillance cameras, and sturdy safety shoulder harnesses.
“It’s a flex seat system, three students to a seat," McClure says. "With larger students, you can slide the buckles over. And they are comfortable. I’m a fairly large person, and I fit just fine.”
McClure walks outside to the transit vehicle yard, and boards an empty new bus, unbuckling one of the belts.
“They’re made of plastic,” he says, pulling it apart. “So even if they swing, they won’t cause harm. Plus, they’re retractable, like in your car.”
McClure says even without seat belts, school buses are relatively safe conveyances.
“School buses are built much higher, with steel frames and bumpers so structurally are stronger. And bus seats are padded front and back, which provide minimal injury.”
According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, between 2005 and 2014, nearly 2,000 traffic crashes involved school transportation vehicles, resulting in more than 1300 fatalities, sixty-four of them school bus passengers. And while passenger vehicles have been required to have seat belts since 1968, it's taken fifty years for lawmakers to start requiring buses be equipped with seat belts.
Back at Asbell Elementary School, school bus driver Mary Williams says she enjoys operating her new bus.
“It’s cool, and easy riding,” she says.
Arkansas's new seat belt law also stipulates that districts hold children to seat belt compliance.
“I have a few that I have to go back and encourage them to get it on," Williams says. But all of them are used to buckling up at home, she says.
The new bus belts have yielded one unexpected consequence, says Freeman Hafen.
“The bad misbehavior has gone way down,” he says, grinning.
After all, it's hard for children to misbehave — when they're all strapped in.
This story is produced by Arkansas Public Media, a statewide journalism collaboration among public media organizations. Arkansas Public Media reporting is funded in part through a grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, with the support of partner stations KUAR, KUAF, KASU and KTXK and from members of the public. You can learn more and support Arkansas Public Media’s reporting at arkansaspublicmedia.org. Arkansas Public Media is Natural State news with context.