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April 21, 1999 - House Committee Passes Bill Requiring Seat Belts On School Buses

April 21, 1999 - House Committee Passes Bill Requiring Seat Belts On School Buses

Sen. Patsy Kurth listened to her conscience and not some of her constituents Tuesday when she voted to make seat belts a mandatory fixture on school buses purchased after the year 2000. Kurth, who represents school districts in Brevard, Indian River, and St. Lucie counties, joined a unanimous view in the Senate Transportation Committee, which approved a measure backers say will save lives by keeping children buckled up.

Critics aren't so sure. Kurth's vote came despite concerns raised by education officials from her district who said the jury is still out on whether belting children into their seats is the right thing to do. "The data is not conclusive," Kurth said. "But if we're going to save the life of a child ... it's worth a try."

The proposal would require districts to include safety lap belts on school buses purchased after 2000. School districts would not be held liable if children do not use the belts, an issue that has plagued the bill in the past. The Senate version is identical to a House measure awaiting action on the House floor.

According to Florida Department of Education figures, 11,982 school bus accidents were recorded between 1986 and 1996 resulting in the deaths of 13 students. Another 6,582 were injured during that time. Despite the liability waiver, Sen. Jim King, R-Jacksonville, said schools are opening themselves up for lawsuits should the bill pass. "Rest assured that once you come in with seat belts, there will be suits filed on whether or not the seat belt was being worn, whether or not the bus driver insisted that the kid be in it," King said. "I think probably the good outweighs ... the bad, but we're kidding ourselves if we think the addition of the seat belts that we're not going to see lawsuits."

The bill has raised concern among Treasure Coast school officials, who are not convinced that they can put the theory behind the bill into practice. David Vogel, schools superintendent of St. Lucie County School District, said that he is unconvinced students actually will wear the belts even though they may be a permanent fixture in new buses. After talking to officials from districts that already have the mandatory seat belt rule, Vogel said he's heard some disturbing news.

"You can't require the kids to wear them," Vogel said. "Even though the buses were equipped with belts, it was a major problem getting them to wear them." Vogel also said school officials said the belts were sometimes used as weapons and that they are hard to keep clean, two additional reasons to take a long look at requiring their use.

"The concern is that this is a feel-good bill," said Linda Robertson, assistant superintendent for finance in the Indian River County School District. "The only restraint that appears to be helpful is a shoulder belt. The bill only calls for a lap belt." Kathleen Geyer, director of transportation for the Indian River County School District, said school officials have not taken an official stance on the legislation. As the district transportation director, Geyer said she has recommended against their use. Geyer is also a member of the Florida Association of Pupil Transportation, which opposes the use of lap belts in school buses. The group says the jury is out on whether the belts will help. A study is being completed by the National Transportation Safety Board. "Anything that comes before the study comes out is not using good sense," Geyer said.

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