‘Seat belt’ bill driven into law

The death of a Rocky Hill student in a school bus crash earlier this year has spurred a new law, signed today by Gov. M. Jodi Rell, that provides tax incentives to school systems that use buses with 3-point seat belts.

The new law exempts school systems from paying about half of the sales tax on buses equipped with seat belts. The tax break is paid for by increasing the fines to reinstate suspended licenses by $50, to a total of $175.

“The tragic death of a Rocky Hill High School student in a January school bus accident has spurred all of us to look for ways to improve school bus safety. This law provides a modicum of state assistance to districts wanting to add seat belts to their fleet but does not impose a costly new mandate on all districts – striking a good balance between incentive and choice,” Rell said in an e-mailed statement.

The tax incentive program will run through 2018, where it will then need to be reevaluated by the legislature. Nearly two dozen bills to get seat belts on school buses in previous years failed, but the death of the Rocky Hill student gave the issue a fresh impetus. The Transportation Committee heard testimony that the student’s death could have been prevented had he been wearing a seat belt.

The original proposal would have required all new school buses to have seat belts, a mandate that proponents said would have had belts on every school bus by 2024.

But support for requiring seat belts on all new school buses failed following a $106 million cost estimate for school systems by the legislature’s Office of Fiscal Analysis and no proposal on how to pay for that.

The compromise law cuts in half the amount of sales tax paid on belt-equipped buses from 6 to 3 percent. Rep. Antonio Guerrera, D-Rocky Hill, co-chairman of the Transportation Committee, has said it costs up to $8,500 per bus to have these belts, and slashing the sales tax will “eat away at the majority of that cost.”

OFA estimates the tax break will pick up less than half the cost for school districts to purchase buses with seat belts and the increased fines for reinstating a license will generate $2.1 million a year.

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.