Some 1.5 million of Texas’ 5 million-plus public school students ride the bus to school, and day in and day out they get to campus and back home safely. But when the rare tragedy strikes, as it did last month when two Houston ISD students were killed in a bus accident, one issue that is almost sure to reemerge is seat belt usage.
This is an issue that state government tried to address with a 2007 law, following a previous fatal bus accident involving a high school soccer team from Beaumont. But the statute was woefully under-funded, mostly ignored and is now toothless.
According to the Houston Chronicle’s Ericka Mellon, in a story linked below, the bus involved in the accident in Houston last month had lap belts, not the more-secure, three-point belts that go over a passenger’s shoulder as well as waist. Officials haven’t said if the students on the bus were wearing them.
The 2007 law required all school buses purchased on or after Sept. 1, 2010, to have three-point belts. The Chronicle story provides a pretty thorough account of how the law fell way shortof its goal.
In 2009, two years after the law was enacted, the Legislature appropriated $10 million to carry it out, way short of the $31 million that local school officials believed was the full cost of compliance for all school districts. Only 12 districts, according to the Chronicle, applied to the Texas Education Agency for seat-belt grants in late 2010 and early 2011. And, some of those districts withdrew their requests after realizing the state assistance covered only seat belts, not the total cost of buying new buses.
In 2011, TEA distributed only $416,582 of the seat belt allotment. Remember, 2011 was the same year the legislative majority slashed $5.4 billion from public education budgets, and the remaining seat belt appropriation was transferred to other education programs or put back in the state treasury. With no remaining state appropriation, the seat belt law is unenforceable.
The $416,582 was shared by Austin ISD, Pettus ISD, South Texas ISD and Dallas County Schools, which operates buses for Dallas ISD and 10 other districts. According to the Chronicle, Dallas County Schools is considered an “outlier” in seat belt use with all of its buses, except back-ups, having seat belts. And nearly two-thirds of those are three-point belts. State funding provided only a fraction of the cost.
Houston ISD applied for a seat belt grant in 2010 but never completed the application process because district officials believed they didn’t meet all of TEA’s criteria. Statewide, the Chronicle reported, most standard-size school buses in Texas still lack seat belts.