HARTFORD, CT — Proponents of legislation requiring seat belts on Connecticut school buses are trying again to get the measure passed this year.
On Monday, the Transportation Committee held a public hearing on proposed legislation that would require all school buses to be equipped with three-point lap and shoulder safety belts. The bill, H.B. 5178, was introduced by Rep. Fred Camillo, R-Greenwich.
Proponents note that the National Transportation Safety Board in 2015, after previously taking the position that safety belts on school buses were not a good idea, reversed its position, and since then have consistently stated installing the belts prevent injuries and save lives.
Camilo said the issue hits him personally. A class that came by bus to the state Capitol for a tour got into an accident in Middletown on their return trip.
Rep. Tony Guerrera, co-chairman of the Transportation Committee, said he, too, believes the issue deserves serious discussion and possible action by the General Assembly in the current session.
“We tell everybody to buckle up and then we send kids off” to get on buses without buckling up,” Guerrera said, terming that a “scary thought.”
Another speaker in favor of the safety belts on school buses was Heather Petit, senior special projects coordinator for the Commission on Women, Children & Seniors.
“Over the past 10 years 6.2 percent of fatal injuries in school bus-related crashes were school bus occupants,” Petit said. “The National Transportation Safety Board study of fatal school bus crashes found that students using lap shoulder belts fared significantly better than those using a lap belt or no restraint system at all.”
She further said that the NTSB study found that of 61 students killed riding school buses between 2005 and 2014, only four of them were wearing seatbelts.
Petit told the committee that six states, including New York, currently require safety belts on school buses.
Most opposition is based on cost: A 2010 University of Alabama study found that it would cost $10,000 to $15,000 per bus to put in lap and shoulder belts for every rider.
Several committee members raised questions about who would have the responsibility of making sure the children — especially the younger ones — are buckled into their seats.
Rep. Devin Carney, R-Old Saybrook, said that many school districts “are already having a hard time finding bus drivers,” and he wondered if the added responsibility of requiring all students to be wearing safety belts would make it even more difficult to recruit bus drivers.
Other committee members voiced their concern that many of the younger students might not know how to unbuckle safety belts in the event of an emergency — and that responsibility would again fall on the bus driver.
“What can be done practically to make sure if a district incurs the expense of having seatbelts that they are actually being used by the students themselves,” Sen. Len Suzio, R-Meriden, asked.
Petit said her research shows that most states that have implemented safety belt requirements have taken the liability issue of buckling the belt away from the bus driver.
Petit added that she has a 6-year-old daughter who knows how to use a safety belt and “most children” know how to buckle their own belts. She added that while there may be issues to work out with the legislation, “You have to start somewhere.”
Jean Cronin, who represents the Connecticut School Transportation Association, said school bus companies are not taking a position on the legislation, but wondered who would be responsible for training the students how to use the seat belts.
Guerrera said they can figure that out. He said what’s important is making sure that they come home after you put your child on a school bus.
“It weighs on us,” Guerrera said.
The committee also heard public hearing testimony on a companion bill introduced by Rep. Nicole Klarides-Ditria, R-Derby, on legislation “informing local and regional school district of the ability to apply for funds from the school bus seat belt account.”
Seven years ago the legislature raised the fee drivers pay to reinstate a suspended license. That money goes into a fund that has raised about $9 million.
The money was supposed to be used to retrofit school buses with safety belts. Instead it has used — twice — by lawmakers to help offset its spiraling deficit. The 2016 budget swept $2 million from the fund.
Klarides-Ditria said she was bringing the legislation forward because “administrators in one of my towns didn’t even know about the fund. I think it’s important to give towns the opportunity to know that we have this fund available to them to see if they’d like to take advantage of it.”
Lawmakers agreed that it was unfortunate the money hasn’t been used for its intended purpose.
“There were multiple millions in there but unfortunately it did not go to the towns who did not know much about it,” Guerrera said. “We tried to get it out there.”