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Seat belts in school buses: are they needed?

OELWEIN, Iowa (KWWL) — The Iowa State Board of Education gave the green light to rules requiring new school buses be outfitted with lap-shoulder seat belts.

Those rules will go to the Legislature’s Administrative Rules Committee who will decide whether or not to pass the rules. If passed, all new buses purchased after October 2, 2019 by Iowa public school districts or state-accredited private schools will have to have seat belts.

For the Oelwein Community School District, their buses run approximately 80,000 miles per year. A majority of those are on regular transportation routes. The remaining 20,000 is from activity travel for football games and the like.

Superintendent Josh Ehn said the district tries to replace their buses every 10 years and some of their buses are up for replacement in the near future.

On average, a school bus costs a district between $90,000-100,000. Adding seat belts increases the cost by an average of $8,000.

Ehn said the district could handle the added cost, but it’s money that could be used elsewhere.

“Those are resources that aren’t going to something else. It’s not buying laptops or computers, classroom furniture, or fixing buildings.”

He said he understands where the state is coming from, but said school buses are extremely safe in their design already.

“While school buses are built to keep students safe, lap-shoulder seat belts provide greater protection against injuries in the rare event of an accident,” said Brooke Axiotis, president of the Iowa State Board of Education.

Serious school bus accidents are incredibly rare. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reports between 2007 and 2016, there were fewer than 1,200 fatal accidents nationwide involving school buses. This is less than half a percent of all crashes. A majority of those deaths weren’t of the children on the bus, but of the driver and passengers of the other vehicle involved.

Ehn expressed concern about what the added seat belts would do to the timing of the bus routes. Current state law limits a student’s time from home to school at an hour. He said he worries it would be difficult to meet that requirement and also make sure students are buckled in.

“If our bus drivers are spending an extra five to ten minutes on a route making sure students are buckled in, we may have to adjust our routes to make sure our students are staying under those hour-long time limits,” he said.

This could mean added routes, which comes at an extra expense to already cash-strapped districts.

If the rules are passed, full implementation across the state would be slow. With districts keeping buses an average of 10-15 years, it could be more than a decade before the newest buses are replaced with ones outfitted with seat belts.

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Collin Dorsey

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