Bill would rescind bus belt mandate


Published: Sunday, January 23, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, January 23, 2005 at 12:57 a.m.

Facts

How the law came about

  • In 1999, fueled by a high-profile accident in Vero Beach that killed two, lawmakers mandated that all school buses bought after 2000 must be equipped with seat belts.

  • TALLAHASSEE - Just four years after the state mandated seat belts in school buses, lawmakers will consider an effort to take them back out.
    Two Lakeland Republicans - Sen. Paula Dockery and Rep. Dennis Ross - have filed bills that would allow county school boards to resume buying buses without seat belts.
    In 1999, motivated by a high-profile accident in Vero Beach that killed two, lawmakers mandated that all school buses bought after 2000 must be equipped with seat belts.
    But that same year, the National Transportation Safety Board said seat belts for bus riders often did more harm than good and that simply staying seated was a more important safety measure.
    Ross expects an emotional fight as he battles an ingrained aphorism: Seat belts save lives.
    ''It's going to take a lot of convincing,'' Ross said. ''But it's the right thing to do for the safety of children. We get bogged down in the Legislature when we get overcome by the emotional debate.''
    Proponents of the seat belt law are numerous and powerful, including the Florida PTA and Attorney General Charlie Crist, who sponsored the bill as a state senator in 1999.
    ''I think it would be unfortunate,'' Crist said of a repeal. ''Clearly, seat belts make children safer.''
    Not everyone agrees, including federal agencies like the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Even without seat belts, school bus passengers are between four and eight times safer than belted passengers in other vehicles.
    The reason is the high, padded seat fronts that cocoon kids in school buses. Called ''compartmentalization,'' the plan is to use narrow, padded seats to pack children so that collisions allow little room to move.
    But Florida PTA legislation chair Dawn Steward says the seats don't protect kids in side-impact accidents. She compared the bus seats to an egg carton with no sides.
    ''If you hit a bus in the rear end, the seats will take care of that,'' she said. ''But if you're hit on the side, watch what happens to the eggs. They all break.''
    Former Rep. Cynthia Chestnut, D-Gainesville, sponsored the bill in 1999. She said it passed with ''lukewarm enthusiasm'' with ''lots of lobbying.''
    Now an Alachua County commissioner, she is still steadfast in her support. She dismisses the federal studies as biased. ''The school bus transportation lobby in Washington is very, very firmly against seat belts and they were able to get that message across.''
    Florida is one of five states in the country that mandates seat belts in school buses. The others are California, Louisiana, New Jersey and New York.
    Most buses use lap belts only. Fred Murphy, assistant superintendent for support services for the Polk County School Board, said the lap belt, rather than restraining a passenger and absorbing the energy, acts as a pivot that flings a child's head forward.
    He said lap belts were deemed unsafe in cars more than 30 years ago when three-point harnesses were mandated in front seats.
    ''We're not providing a safer ride,'' Murphy said. ''It devastates me to think we would use lap belts on a bus that we would not even have in our own car.''
    School officials have found other unintended side effects to the seat belts.
    ''With elementary school kids, they get on the bus and you hear 'click, click, click.' They're conditioned to use them,'' said Dave Ingalls, director of transportation for Sarasota County's school district. ''In middle school, they wrap it around their buddy's neck. We've had a kid hit in the face. They set traps across the aisle (with the belts) They get dirty. They're a pain in the neck.''
    And, Ingalls said, no law can force dozens of kids on a bus with one driver to buckle up.
    ''It's not the law that you have to use them,'' he said, ''just that you have to have them.''
    The state's decision to mandate the seat belts has proven costly for the counties. Murphy said Polk's district actively replaces older buses - about 100 of the district's 600 buses were purchased after the 2001 mandate for seat belts.
    The cost for the seat belts is about $2,500 a bus, Murphy said, or $250,000 since 2001.
    In Sarasota County, Ingalls said about 100 of the district's 300 buses have seat belts.
    Murphy, who lobbied Ross and Dockery to sponsor the bills, said the reason for the repeal isn't the cost.
    ''Not at all. If I thought spending $10 or $12,000 (more) on a bus would ensure safety, I'd be all for it,'' Murphy said, adding that the biggest safety issue for students is safety on streets with heavy traffic as they walk and wait for the bus.
    ''It's a false sense of security,'' Murphy said of the belts. ''There are far more kids hurt or killed outside the bus.''

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