In the wake of a horrific school bus accident this past November in Tennessee, Rhode Island lawmakers are making another push towards a school bus seat belt law. Coventry Republican Rep. Robert Nardolillo is attempting a third time to require seat belts on newly acquired school buses in Rhode Island. The bill, introduced Friday, would require a three-point seat belt for every passenger starting in 2019. Nardolillo states it is common-sense legislation that will prevent injury and death.
Required in Vehicles- Why Not in Buses?
Rhode Island Safety Laws requires children under the age of 8, under 57 inches, and under 80 pounds to ride in the rear seat of the vehicle and to wear a safety restraint. Children ages 8-12 must be wearing a properly fitted seat belt. If children are required to wear safety restraints in cars and trucks, why aren’t they required to wear seat belts on school buses?
Opponents of the seat belt bill cite the cost- around $7,000 to $10,000 per bus, and safety concerns that young children would not be able to get out of the belt by themselves to evacuate in the case of a school bus accident. Some state that large school buses don’t need seat belts due to “compartmentalization”. This means that the seats are specially designed to absorb impact if a child was thrown forward in a crash. The seats are high and padded and close together. The head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) disagrees that restraints aren’t necessary and has re-emphasized the agency’s call for school bus seat belts. Last year, they called for a three-point seat belt on every bus.
Currently, only six states- California, Florida, Louisiana, New Jersey, New York, and Texas, require seat belts on school buses. The Federal Government however, does require seat belts on small buses (those under 10,000 pounds) where having a seat belt would affect safety.
How Safe are School Buses?
Per the NHTSA, school buses are one of the safest forms of transportation in the United States. Approximately 450,000 public school buses transport 23.5 million to and from school and school-related activities. School buses are approximately 7 times safer than passenger cards or light trucks. On average, while more than 42,000 people are killed in traffic crashes every year, six school-age children die as passengers in school buses annually. The Chattanooga Tennessee school bus accident killed 6 children in that one incident. Dozens were injured. We don’t know how many of those young lives could have been saved, or injuries prevented, by wearing a safety belt.
School Bus Driver Requirements in Rhode Island
Seat belts installed on school buses, and enforcing the use of them, are safety measures that can be taken in addition to ensuring the school bus driver is properly certified. In Rhode Island, safety laws require that school bus drivers have a Class C CDL with passenger, air brake, and school bus endorsements. Certificates for drivers must be renewed on a yearly basis. In addition, school bus drivers must meet the following requirements:
- Have held a motor vehicle operator’s license for at least 3 years and be at least 21 years old.
- Have had no felony convictions and/or committed crimes of moral turpitude.
- Complete 10 hours of classroom instruction.
- Complete an eye test and physical examination by a licensed physician.
- Agree to an annual randomly administered drug test performed by your employer.
In the case of the Chattanooga, Tennessee school bus accident, the school bus driver, 24-year-old Johnthony Walker, had numerous misconduct complaints against him prior to the accident. Criticisms from parents and school officials including speeding, rudeness to and cursing students, and purposely swerving to make children fall from their seats. Walker now faces criminal charges and civil lawsuits.
Changes after Tennessee School Bus Accident
Walker worked for the school bus contractor, Durham School Bus Services. The CEO David A. Duke stated that the company is making “multi-million-dollar safety changes” in the wake of the crash. Whether seat belts are included in these changes is unknown. Duke said Durham will institute a nationwide complaint management system and install cameras in all buses that record the driver and the road when they sense unusual driving. Changes are expected to be completed in the next 1-2 years.
While implementing positive safety changes after a tragedy like this school bus accident are a good move going forward, we know it cannot change the past. Numerous lives are forever changed by the loss of these young children, and the personal injury of the others. Tapalian Law knows that losing a loved one is an immeasurable loss. If you have suffered injuries, or a loved one’s fatality, in a school bus accident in Rhode Island, Tapalian Law can help you fight for what you deserve. Attorney David Tapalian will help you through the process. Call Tapalian Law for a confidential and free consultation, at 401-552-5000, or contact us online.