School bus seat belt bill comes up again in aftermath of a student’s death

A legislative committee is scheduled to hear testimony today on the latest in a long series of so-far unsuccessful proposals to require seat belts in school buses–but the death of Rocky Hill student Vikas Parikh in a crash last month is giving new impetus to the idea.

“From everything I have been told and have read, had that seat belt been there he might be home today,” said Rep. Antonio Guerrera, D-Rocky Hill, co-chairman of the legislature’s Transportation Committee. “If seat belts can save one life, it’s well worth it.”

Over the past two decades, 23 bills have been proposed to safety belts in school buses, according to the legislature’s Office of Legislative Research. The proposals have never even reached the state of being debated in the Transportation Committee.

But Guerrera says this year is different, and he believes the committee will debate and vote on his proposed seat belt requirement for Connecticut’s 10,000 school buses.

“I do think we will vote on this,” he said. “Whether the committee will pass it is a whole different story.”

Buses currently are designed to comply with a federal safety standard known as compartmentalization, which relies on padding and flexible seats placed close together to absorb impact and protect students in a crash.

Nationwide, six states have decided compartmentalization is not enough and require seat belts on school buses.  Similar legislation was proposed in 25 other states in 2009, reports The National Coalition for School Bus Safety. The Congressional Research Service estimated in Aug. 2007 that 35 percent of the nations school buses are required to have seat belts.

The question of who’s going to pay for these seat belts in Connecticut is what several committee members say could effectively kill the proposal.

As the bill is written, bus contractors would pick up the cost for installing seat belts, but many legislators say the expense would be passed to municipalities.

“How does that cost ripple down?” asked Sen. Donald J. Defronzo, D-New Britain, the other Transportation Committee co-chairman. “Obviously this cost will eventually be passed on to the taxpayer.”

“I have never supported unfunded mandates and the state is clearly in no position to take on the huge costs of installing seat belts,” said Rep. David A. Scribner, R-Brookfield, House minority leader of the committee.

Sen. Toni Boucher, R-Wilton, the committee’s Senate minority leader, said she supported seat belt requirements on buses when she was her town’s school board chairman in the early 1990s.

“The concern though is, should this be a local decision based on the community’s desires and capacity to be able to afford it in the school budget,” she said. “Right now everyone is very sensitive about passing on a mandate that is very expensive.”

Five municipalities in Connectcut currently do require seat belts in school buses.

Equipping school buses with seat belts would cost $8,000 to $15,000 per bus, one bus company executive told the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration in July 2007.

Guerrero said he wants to fund the proposal by giving tax breaks to bus companies and raising the fines for motorists caught violating the existing state seat belt law, though these changes have yet to be formally proposed.

“It’s difficult when we’re in a tough economy. But it’s even more difficult to tell a parent that a child unfortunately is not coming home today because they were involved in a fatal crash when a seat belt could have saved them,” Guerrero said.

The parents of 16-year-old Vikas Parikh, who died in an accident in Hartford Jan. 9, support the bill and are scheduled to appear with Guerrero at a press conference on the measure today at 10:30 a.m. The public hearing begins at 1 p.m. in room 2D of the Legislative Office Building.

Connecticut School Transportation Association has opposed the seat belt requirement since it was first proposed in 1989, said Executive Director Bill Moore.

“We have very serious concerns. Every study that has ever been conducted on the national level explains why compartmentalization works,” he said, adding that it would be costly to install the belts.

The 2007 CRS report says that compartmentalization is effective for front- and rear-end crashes but is “less effective” in side-impact and rollover crashes when passengers are thrown out of the compartments. The report said there is an average of 11 school bus fatalities a year in the U.S.

The NCSBS, headquartered in Torrington, says surveillance videos taken inside the bus during an accident make it clear that compartmentalization doesn’t work.

“Kids don’t just go forward in a wreck and it’s ridiculous to believe so,” NCSBS President Alan Ross said. “Is it enough to only have a soft dashboard in cars? No. You can spin it a lot of different ways but the laws of physics are the same in your car as they are in buses.”

A recent Quinnipiac University poll said almost three out of four Connecticut residents support requiring seat belts on school buses. The poll surveyed 1,594 registered voters two weeks after Parikh’s death and had a margin of error of 2.5 percentage points.