Capitol Alert

Why all California school buses don’t have seat belts — and when they will

Are you obeying school bus traffic laws?

As kids start to head back to school, here's a refresher from the Santa Rosa Police Department on how to safely drive on the road with school buses and near schools.
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As kids start to head back to school, here's a refresher from the Santa Rosa Police Department on how to safely drive on the road with school buses and near schools.

For years, California school buses didn’t have seat belts. Many still don’t.

But Gov. Jerry Brown this week signed AB 1798, a bill that would require all school buses in California have seat belts with shoulder and lap belts — by July 2035.

Districts must either retrofit their old buses with seat belts before 2035 or purchase new buses with seat belts.

What’s taking so long?

Seat belts have only recently been recognized as important to reducing serious injuries in school bus accidents.

In 2002, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration found that lap belts on school buses have little to no benefit in reducing serious injuries during frontal crashes. Because school buses are designed differently than cars and trucks, the Department of Transportation agency concluded that students were already cushioned and safe from frontal crashes, as school bus seats are secured to the floor and have high, padded seat backs with energy-absorbing steel skeletons.

A school bus with no students aboard collided with a vehicle on Empire Avenue just south of Tenaya Drive in Modesto on Monday, Jan. 29, 2018. The occupants of the vehicle suffered minor injuries. The bus crashed into a Modesto Irrigation District

The NHTSA changed its stance in 2015, however, after investigating crashes in which children were critically injured or killed. They concluded that while buses were safer than cars in frontal crashes, students would benefit from being secured during cases of side-impact crashes or rollovers.

They are also expensive to replace. The Legislature’s analysis of the bill estimates that each new bus costs about $300,000.

In California, new school buses sold already have seat belts, a requirement that former Gov. Gray Davis signed into law in 1999. Manufacturers were given time to implement the change. All school buses purchased in California have had seat belts since July 2004 or July 2005, depending on the design and size of the bus.

Only buses manufactured before the law went into effect do not have seat belts and would be affected by the new law.

“The safety of children is always front and center,” said Assemblyman Kansen Chu, D-San Jose, who authored the bill. “There have been accidents that happened. Though school buses are already strong, seat belts save lives.”

He said that because school buses have a working life of 30 years; the majority of school buses without seat belts will already be out of commission by 2035, meaning that the bill is unlikely to incur extra costs for school districts or the state.

The California Highway Patrol estimated that since the requirement that new school buses contain seat belts went into effect, the number of school buses with restraint systems increased from 7.4 percent in 2007 to 54.4 percent in 2016. Based on this trend, the CHP estimates that 90 percent of school buses will have seat belts by 2025.

Charlie Lawlor, a spokesman for the California Medical Association, said the organization supported the measure.

“The California Medical Association (CMA) fully supports AB 1798 as a necessary public health measure that will protect the health and well-being of children by requiring all elementary and secondary school buses to be equipped with passenger seat belts,” Lawlor said in a written statement.

Arkansas, Florida, Louisiana, New Jersey, New York and Texas have also passed some variation of legislation requiring school buses to have seat belts.

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