The debate for the need for seat belts on school buses could go on for quite some time in Illinois, which does not have a state law about belts, other than requiring one for the bus driver.
Special-needs students have their own buses with their own requirements.
Iowa’s State Board of Education unanimously approved a new rule Aug. 1 that will begin requiring seat belts for all students on all school buses manufactured after Oct. 2. But buses manufactured before that won’t have to be retrofitted.
Although there is no state law in Illinois requiring seat belts for students, the biggest school district in the state, Chicago Public Schools, does require all of its buses to have seat belts for each student.
Does the state need to enact to a similar requirement? The answer depends upon who you ask.
Evelyn Gay, East Moline Elementary Schools District 37 transportation director, is adamantly against the idea.
The reason is not cost, but safety. Gay said she believes seat belts would not necessarily make things safer for students.
Gay, who served for many years on the Illinois Association for Pupil Transportation, has studied the issue of requiring seat belts on school buses and is “definitely against it.”
“If there ever was an accident and the bus had seat belts on it, it would take a lot of time to get the kids out of the bus quickly because they would have to take off their seat belts,” Gay said. “And if there was a major crash, we would have major problems.”
She strongly believes Illinois' requirements for seats on buses offer enough protection.
“In Illinois, we have the seats that are 48 inches high, front and back, and because the kids are in a compartmentalized area ... the way the seats are constructed in Illinois, it would be a safer environment for the students, and I believe there would be less injury,” she said.
Ron Jacobs, superintendent of Riverdale School District, said he sees cost being a problem with requiring seat belts — not the cost of belts, but the need for more adults to be on the bus to help young children take off their belts in the event of a crash.
“My biggest concern with putting seat belts on school buses would be having enough adults or adult-minded people in the event that the school bus would have some sort of an accident,” he said. “Let’s say it's a rollover.
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"We transport 3-year-olds.We transport preschool kids all the way through high school seniors.
“Oftentimes your high school kids are driving to school, so you eliminate some of those able-bodied high school students from the route, and you have a bunch of young, panicked 3-to-10-year-olds on a school bus that’s in peril.
“If your driver is incapacitated for any kind of reason, you are kind of left with a busload of little ones who may or not be able to safely remove themselves from a school bus if they are buckled in.”
Moline and Rock Island school districts provide buses through Johannes Bus Service for special-needs students only, which have different requirements.
Jay Morrow, superintendent of the United Township High School District, said the problem with requiring seat belts on buses is that it becomes another unfunded mandate by the state.
A year ago, Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Illinoism introduced a bill in the U.S. Senate that would mandate seat belts for all new school buses.
And the state has kicked around bills in its own legislature over the years, including House Bill 3337 in the 100th General Assembly that combined several bills. It would have required three-point seat belts or a restraint system for all new buses after the bill passed. But it never passed.
State Rep. Tony McCombie, R-Savanna, noted the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the National Safety Council have encouraged the use of seat belts for every school bus, but they have not mandated seat belts in school buses because of fiscal concerns.
So the debate continues, but no legislation is expected to require seat belts on school buses for students in Illinois.
If a law requiring them is passed, “we will adjust, we always do,” Morrow said. “If it increases the safety of our kids, it’s hard to argue against it, and it’s a good thing."
To Jacobs and Gay, the lack of such a law in Illinois is fine.
“I think we’ve got bigger safety issues that the state of Illinois could step in and help us with," Jacobs said. "I think the buses the way they are manufactured right now are a pretty safe mode of transportation for our kids.”