In Montana, it’s illegal to drive a car or ride as a passenger without a seat belt, yet seat belts are not required on school buses that transport students to and from school every day.
Missoula County Public Schools administrators are hoping to get a step ahead of the law by proposing the addition of seat belts to the fleet of buses the district uses.
At a Tuesday board meeting, Superintendent Mark Thane said the district will discuss plans to add seat belts to school buses as they negotiate contracts with their primary busing company, Beach Transportation, in the coming weeks.
Thane said although there have been significant improvements to school bus safety over the years, the absence of seat belts leaves students in danger.
“We've come to clearly understand that this is a student life-safety matter,” Thane said. “I think it's incumbent upon us to do everything we can to ensure the safety of the students on the buses as we transport them to and from school.”
MCPS currently uses 72 buses owned by Beach Transportation. Under the proposed plan, 48 of those buses would be retrofitted to include seat belts by the fall of 2019. The remaining buses would be phased out over the next few years as Beach Transportation typically buys seven or eight new buses each year.
Thane recommended that the district use the retrofitted buses for long-distance, high-speed or high-mileage routes, and limit the older buses to low-speed, short local routes.
It would cost $10,000 to retrofit each bus, adding up to a total of $480,000 that would ultimately fall to taxpayers.
MCPS executive director of business and operations Pat McHugh said the district is hoping to spread that cost out over time so that taxpayers don't have a “big hit one year.”
Montana is one of 42 states that does not require school buses to have seat belts, despite numerous attempts by lawmakers to pass legislation that would mandate a change.
Proposed legislation to require all new school buses to have seat belts has been shot down in each of the last four legislative sessions in Montana with opponents arguing that school buses are already safe.
Statistically, school buses are safer for kids than passenger vehicles. On average, six student passengers are killed in school bus accidents each year, compared to about 2,000 children who die in motor vehicle crashes each year, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
School buses have also improved over the years as manufacturers have adopted a common interior design model known as compartmentalization. The design features high-back seats with padding on the front and back that are spaced closely together. The idea is that in the event of an accident, students are protected in compartments that can absorb the impact.
In the meeting Tuesday, Thane acknowledged that although buses have improved significantly, compartmentalized seats are only effective in front and rear-end collisions.
“Side-impact collisions and rollover collisions have proven that there is a significant risk of student injury and even fatalities,” Thane said.
Thane also said the use of video cameras on school buses in recent years has allowed administrators and manufacturers to see what happens to students during accidents.
“Unfortunately, in northern Montana, there was previously a fatality from a side-impact collision where a 7-year-old girl actually was ejected through the window on the opposite side of the school bus,” Thane said.
In addition to preventing future fatalities, Thane said seat belts help students remain in their seats, thereby reducing the number of contact reports on buses.
“We also know that one of the reasons bus accidents do happen is distracted drivers and that distraction is often the result of student activity on the bus, so anything we can do to help alleviate that concern is also important,” Thane said.
Although the seat belts would come at an additional cost, they would put MCPS on the same level as other school districts like Helena Public Schools, which are being proactive about student safety by adding seat belts to their buses.
McHugh said the district won’t know the exact cost of the seat belts until they negotiate a new contract with Beach Transportation.
MCPS’ transportation budget is among its largest budgets, with $4 million allocated for elementary transportation and $2.2 million for high school. The state only reimburses the district about a million dollars total for transportation. The remainder falls on taxpayers through permissive levies which are passed by the school board.
Trustees will vote on the recommendation to adopt seat belts in the form of a permissive levy, which does not require a public vote. MCPS will notify the public of any changes to permissive levies including the transportation levy on March 15.