Gov. DeWine’s school bus safety working group does not recommend seat belts • Ohio Capital Journal | #schoolsaftey

The Ohio School Bus Safety Working Group has 17 recommendations, but seat belts is not one of them.

This comes after Gov. Mike DeWine assembled the 15-member group after an 11-year-old Clark County elementary school student died in a school bus crash in August. 

“The working group decided that the decision to install seat belts on buses should remain with local school districts who are best situated to understand their unique needs with respect to the safety of their students,” Andy Wilson, the director of the Ohio Department of Public Safety, said during a press conference Wednesday. 

Wilson, who said seat belts were at the center of many discussions in the working group, said he originally thought there was a good chance they were going to recommend seat belts. 

“However, as a group, after hearing from experts, hearing from our bus drivers, looking at the data or the lack of data from states that have mandated seat belts, and listening to school districts who have tried pilot programs on their buses, we became convinced that a statewide mandate of seat belt on buses is not the most effective use of government resources to keep our kids safe,” he said. 

Seat belts are optional on large school buses weighing over 10,000 pounds and more than 60% of Ohio school districts have purchased at least one large school bus with seat belts, Wilson said. 

“They create some unintended consequences that I just wasn’t aware of before we started this,” Wilson said. 

He shared how someone from Avon Lake City Schools in Northeast Ohio told the working group how their policy is to pull the school bus over if a student is unbuckled, until the student had re-buckled their seat belt. 

Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine gets off a school bus as part of the first Ohio School Bus Safety Working Group meeting at the Ohio Department of Public Safety Atrium on Sept. 11, 2023. (Photo by Megan Henry, Ohio Capital Journal).

“Now, that causes a safety issue in and of itself, because you got a bus sitting stationary, that’s apt to be hit,” he said. “So I think it’s better just to let the districts decide what’s best, and then give them the funding so that if they want to do it, it’s an option.”

Only eight states require seat belts on school buses: New York, New Jersey, Arkansas, California, Florida, Louisiana, Nevada, and Texas.

Back in September, U.S. Senator Sherrod Brown (D-OH) introduced the School Bus Safety Act which would implement safety recommendations from the National Transportation Safety Board, including requiring seat belts. The bill, which is also sponsored by Senator Tammy Duckworth (D-IL), is in the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation. 

The working group had six meetings after Aiden Clark, a Northwestern Local Schools elementary student, died on Aug. 22 when a minivan going the other way crossed the centerline, causing a head-on collision and ejecting Clark. The bus was transporting more than 50 students to their first day of school and more than 20 students were injured in the crash.

“I know that buses are the safest way to transport children to school,” DeWine said. “That remains true. But when we have a tragedy like this, it’s important for us to re-examine what we can do to make our trips our kids are taking, our grandkids are taking, as safe as we can.”

Nationally, there were 1,009 fatal school transportation related crashes from 2011 to 2020, and 1,125 people were killed in those crashes, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Moreover, 18% of all school bus occupants killed in the crashes were between 5 to 10 years old, according to the NHTSA. 

17 recommendations

The working group came up with 17 recommendations that fall into six categories: recruitment and retention; professional development, training and education; school bus safety features; road and traffic safety; emergency responses and commercial bus services.

Some of the recommendations are up for individual school districts to decide while some would require action from lawmakers. 

  1. School districts should identify, share, and encourage bus drivers to participate in professional development opportunities. 
  2. The Ohio Department of Education and Workforce should work with the Ohio Department of Public Safety to create and offer wellness programming specific to school bus drivers. 
  3. School districts should develop school bus driver performance review policies and conduct annual performance evaluations.
  4. The Ohio Department of Education and Workforce should require and provide a curriculum for six hours of annual bus driver training.
  5. The Ohio Department of Public Safety and Ohio Department of Education and Workforce should partner to expand advanced driver training for school bus drivers in Ohio.
  6. The Ohio Department of Education and Workforce should adopt rules requiring school districts to offer school bus safety orientation to students, parents, and guardians at the beginning of each school year.
  7. The Ohio State Highway Patrol should initiate collaboration between state and local law enforcement partners to develop law enforcement training on school bus inspections and the most  common safety risks for student passengers. 
  8. The Ohio Department of Public Safety should develop educational materials and wide-ranging public service announcements on school bus traffic safety laws and best driving practices.
  9. The Ohio Department of Education and Workforce should assess whether it is appropriate to increase the minimum number of required training hours for school bus mechanics.
  10. The Ohio Department of Education and Workforce should work with the Ohio General Assembly to develop and fund a grant program to help school districts invest in school bus safety features such as, but not limited to, seat belts. 
  11. The Ohio Department of Public Safety should work with the Ohio General Assembly to strengthen penalties for drivers who violate traffic laws in school zones and around school buses. 
  12. The Ohio Department of Transportation should support cities, townships, and villages to assess safety conditions on local roads located in and around school zones. 
  13. School districts should conduct safety audits of their bus routes, bus stops, and school pick-up/drop-off sites on school property to reduce safety risks and mitigate the severity of school bus crashes.
  14. School districts should engage school bus drivers in critical incident response planning and include them in realistic, scenario-based critical incident exercises.  
  15. The Ohio State Highway Patrol should hold regular school bus stakeholder meetings to identify and mitigate gaps in critical incident responses to school bus crashes and other bus-related security issues.
  16. The Ohio Department of Education and Workforce should expand its post-crash report to collect additional information and publish the data annually to inform future policy decisions and aid in determining school bus driver professional development needs.
  17. School districts should adopt policies that require a thorough evaluation of contracted commercial bus services. 

The group recommends school districts add various safety features to school buses including LED lights, external school bus cameras, crossing arms, lighted crossover mirrors and collision avoidance systems, among others. 

All the recommended safety features (except seat belts) would cost roughly $13,000 per bus. Adding seat belts on school buses would be an additional $19,000 on top of the $13,000, said Steve Dackin, director of Ohio Department of Education and Workforce. 

A 78 passenger school bus with none of these enhancements currently costs roughly $120,000, he said. 

Ohio has 15,000 school buses and more than 17,000 school bus drivers. About 10% of Ohio school buses are replaced every year. 

Follow OCJ Reporter Megan Henry on X.


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