Proposal would require school bus seat belts

Wednesday, January 31, 2007 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 3:05 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

JEFFERSON CITY — A Tuesday morning school bus crash involving 26 students in the St. Louis area prompted two representatives to renew their call for requiring new school buses to have seat belts.

According to the Missouri State Highway Patrol, the bus struck a car and rolled over around 8 a.m. on Missouri Route 30 in Jefferson County. None of the students were seriously injured. The bus driver and car driver were hospitalized.

Rep. Sam Page, D-St. Louis County, and Rep. Timothy Flook, R-Liberty, have proposed a bill to add a $15 surcharge to moving traffic violations to help school districts fund seat belts on new school buses. The project could cost between $6,000 and $7,000 per bus, Flook said.

Under the bill, schools could begin to phase in the new lap-shoulder seat belt-equipped buses beginning Jan. 1, 2008.

In fall 2005, Gov. Matt Blunt called on legislators to require seat belts on new buses. But the idea met with stiff resistance from opponents who argued it would impose a financial burden on schools without significantly improving safety.

Flook said he began to champion school bus safety in May 2005, when a Liberty Public School District bus careened through an intersection and rolled over, injuring several students — two permanently. The crash killed the drivers of two vehicles.

“Once you roll over, the child is no longer like a child sitting

in a seat,” Flook said. “The child is essentially like a tennis ball inside of a dryer rolling around.”

After the wreck, Flook served on the state’s School Bus Safety Task Force. He later discovered that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration doesn’t test bus safety in rollover crashes or the safety of seating three students per seat.

“Right then, we found out there was two gaping holes to their testing,” Flook said.

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, there was an annual average of 17,000 school bus-related injuries between 2001 and 2003.

Alan Ross, president of the National Coalition for School Bus Safety, said school bus wrecks are a “fairly common problem.” Ross said six school bus-related wrecks in one day — including the one in Jefferson County — had been reported across the nation by Thursday afternoon.

“It’s a very dangerous vehicle,” Ross said. “It’s hard to steer. This vehicle is an antique.”

Brent Ghan, spokesman for the Missouri School Boards’ Association, said the association historically has not favored mandatory seat belts on school buses. Not only has research been mixed about whether seat belts increase a student’s safety, but Ghan also said it is unclear if the proposed funding mechanism could fully pay for the new belts.

But Rep. Sally Faith, R-St. Charles, said she’s optimistic Missouri could soon join the list of states requiring buses to have seat belts.

“I think the way to eat an elephant is one bite at a time,” Faith said. “It’s just now getting its momentum. It takes a while to get everything passed.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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