A new bipartisan bill requiring the installation of seat belts into all newly manufactured school buses bought or leased by Wisconsin school districts has moved quickly through the Legislature because of increased awareness of deaths from school bus crashes.

Although few school bus accidents or fatalities have occurred in Wisconsin, seat belts save lives,  Sen. Tim Cullen, D-Janesville, said, adding it is inevitable that within the next few years, school buses will be required to be equipped with seat belts nationwide.

The bill, which was introduced in late September, had a public hearing Thursday and is also sponsored by Sen. Dale Schultz, R-Richland Center, and Rep. Garey Bies, R-Sister Bay, in addition to 12 Democratic legislators.

“Every once in a while, we have a problem on school buses,” bill sponsor Sen. Fred Risser, D-Madison, said. “Seat belts would not only keep the kids in their seats, but it will save them from injury in the case that the bus gets into trouble.”

To manufacture a school bus with seat belts costs a school district about $10,000 more than the cost of manufacturing one without them, money that would be taken from the Department of Instruction’s transportation fund, according to the Legislative Fiscal Bureau’s estimate.

To promote the new bill, a grant program was introduced allowing school districts to apply for state funding for half of the money required to make the switch from older buses to new ones with seat belts, which on average would equal $5,000 a bus.

Organizations opposed to the bill, including the Wisconsin Motor Carriers Association and local school bus associations, say school buses are already safe, and many kids would not use the seat belts anyway. 

Cullen said districts would have additional costs, but saving lives is more important.

Wearing a seat belt has also become a habit for many children and their families, Cullen added.

“Kids are now so used to being buckled up, literally almost from birth,” Cullen said. “My grandchildren are four or five and they get all excited when they become old enough to get to buckle themselves for the first time. They won’t let their parents or grandparents move the car one foot.”

The Wisconsin EMS Association also testified in favor of the bill at a hearing Thursday, citing its experiences dealing with car crashes and the correlation between fatalities and lack of seat belts.

A similar law was passed in Texas in 2007 after a school bus rollover resulted in the deaths of two young girls, as well as 12 serious injuries. None of the children were wearing seat belts. Soon after, a bill mandating seat belts in school buses passed almost unanimously through the state’s Legislature, Cullen said.

Despite the lack of federal regulations regarding seat belts on school buses, six states nationwide have already enacted laws requiring safety belt systems in school buses, including New York, New Jersey, California, Florida, Louisiana and Texas, Cullen said.

Risser said the new law would have several positive impacts: primarily increasing safety for children, but additionally, restraining rambunctious kids “running around the back of the bus.”