Lincoln Public Schools has begun buying buses equipped with lap and shoulder seat belts, a change in practice based on a new recommendation by a federal safety agency.
This month the school board approved spending $1.4 million to buy 12 new school buses: eight 54-passenger buses, including seven that are wheelchair accessible; two 84-passenger and two 72-passenger buses.
They will all have lap and shoulder seat belts, a standard the district plans to meet in all new buses it buys. That means it will be a long time before all buses have lap and shoulder belts.
“We will have a mix of seat belt configurations in our buses for many, many years to come,” said Liz Standish, associate superintendent of business affairs. “We believe all of them are engineered to keep students safe.”
The LPS decision illustrates the latest development in a decades-long debate about whether to require seat belts in school buses.
For years, both the National Transportation Safety Board and the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration have said the design of large buses -- a concept called compartmentalization that protects passengers with strong, closely spaced seats and energy-absorbing seat backs -- offers adequate protection.
Those organizations also point to statistics that show children are about 70 times more likely to get to school safely in a school bus than in a personal vehicle. And groups including the National Association for Pupil Transportation have raised concerns that seat belts could make it harder for children to escape if a bus were submerged in water or on fire.
Advocates for seat belts -- including the mom of a student who died in a 2001 crash in Omaha when a Seward school bus plummeted into Papio Creek -- have long argued buses should have both lap and shoulder belts because the bus design doesn’t adequately protect against side-impact crashes and rollovers.
One of the biggest roadblocks has been cost.
Ryan Robley, LPS director of transportation, said it costs between $10,000-$20,000 more for a bus equipped with lap and shoulder belts.
Eight states -- Arkansas, California, Florida, Louisiana, Nevada, New York, Texas, Arkansas and New Jersey -- require that new school buses have seat belts. The laws in Arkansas, Louisiana and Texas are subject to appropriations or approval by local jurisdictions, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
For years, Nebraska lawmakers have introduced bills to require seat belts on school buses, but none have been successful, including one introduced this session by Omaha Sen. Robert Hilkemann.
The Nebraska Association of School Boards has opposed the bills, largely because they represent a state mandate, and such decisions should be left to districts, said Colby Coash, director of governmental relations.
In a letter to the Legislature's Transportation Committee that heard LB634 this session, Brad Wilkins, NASB board vice president and a school board member in Ainsworth, said his district doesn’t have the money to buy buses with seat belts and would rather use it to support student mental health.
A provision that allows school boards to vote to forgo the seat belt requirement didn’t appease him.
“If we are going to require a vote on seat belts in buses, why not require a vote on metal detectors, on site security officers, security cameras and exterior locks?”
But on the national level, the tide began to shift in 2015, when the NHTSA administrator said during a speech that the agency’s policy had shifted to support all school buses having shoulder and lap belts, and he announced a series of steps his agency would take to move the nation toward that goal.
But LPS didn’t change its practice until the National Transportation Safety Board, an independent federal accident investigation agency, recommended to states that all new large school buses be equipped with both lap and shoulder belts.
That happened in May 2018, as a result of the investigation of two 2016 bus accidents in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and Baltimore City, Maryland, that collectively killed 2 and injured 37.
In the last month, a Lincoln Board of Education Committee discussed the new recommendation and decided LPS should follow it. The district has historically followed NTSB recommendations, Standish said.
More than 3,600 LPS students use school buses, nearly half of them special education students. The district has 150 buses that range from 20-passenger to 84-passenger vehicles. It also has two seven-passenger vans.
The vans and 10 buses that seat either 20 or 27 passengers already have lap and shoulder belts, as federal regulations require, Robley said.
Since 2008, the NHTSA has required smaller buses less than 10,000 pounds -- those with weights and sizes closer to passenger vans or trucks -- to have lap and shoulder belts.
And at some point, the district began buying buses with lap belts, which Robley said was to stay in line with recommendations, although he couldn’t point to a specific recommendation from NTSB or NHTSA.
About 90 buses that carry between 27 and 54 passengers have lap belts.
None of the 84-seat buses have lap belts and some of the smaller buses don’t have lap belts because they are older and haven’t been replaced with newer buses equipped with them, Standish said.