After 23 F’s, seat belt bill passes a test

Rep. Antonio Guerrera, co-chairman of the legislature’s Transportation Committee, set out to require installation of seat belts on all school buses now, but he’s satisfied with a compromise that will have every child buckled up sometime around 2024.

“This was a huge, huge move,” the Rocky Hill Democrat said Monday after the committee approved the compromise bill 29-7. Similar bills have died in committee 23 times.

The proposal got a fresh impetus following the death of a student from Rocky Hill in a school bus crash earlier this year. The transportation committee heard testimony last month that Vikas Parikh’s death could have been prevented had he been wearing a seat belt.

school bus seatbelts 3-15-10

Ranking Republican David Scribner and committee co-chairs Antonio Guerrera and Donald DeFronzo discuss school bus seat belt bill

Guerrera’s original proposal would have required installation of seat belts in all 10,000 school buses in the state. The compromise approved Monday would require only new buses to have belts, starting in July 2012. Because the typical life of a school bus is 12 years, the entire state fleet will have seat belts around 2024, he said.

Guerrera said the cost of retrofitting existing buses with the three-point lap-and-shoulder belts–$20,000, according to school bus companies–would have doomed his original proposal.

“Let’s be honest, school bus companies would have to pay that and it would be passed on to towns,” he said. “I think we have the votes for just requiring it on new buses.”

But Sen. Gary D. LeBeau, D-East Hartford, said the costs are “enormous” for new buses too, and the money can be better spent elsewhere.

“It is estimated seat belts might save one life a year nationwide. That’s $1 billion a life,” he said. “I would rather take that money and spend it on education or children’s health care.”

Guerrera said bus manufacturers have told him a new school bus with seat belts costs an additional $8,000.

“It won’t be a killer. We are only talking about a couple grand,” he said.

To pay for the belts, Guerrera said the state could give bus companies an exemption from the 6 percent sales tax on new vehicles, or could double the fines for people ticketed for not wearing their seat belts to $74. These changes have yet to be introduced.

Several committee members said they do not support the bill because they believe local school boards and towns will be left picking up the costs.

“I am a strong believer in zero, and I mean no, unfunded mandates,” said Sen. Michael A. McLachlan, R-Danbury.

Even if the state does find a way to pay for the belts, the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities will still oppose the requirement, said executive director James Finley.

“If this does pass, the state should put it’s money where it’s mandate is,” he said. “The jury is still out on if they are even needed and $8,000 is a lot of money schools could use elsewhere.”

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 nation’s school buses are required to have seat belts.