By Cindy Chan
When it comes to safety in pupil transportation, there is always work to be done.
Charlie Hood, executive director for the National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services (NASDPTS), was in attendance at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) meeting in Washington, D.C. on Dec. 1, 2016, at which several safety issues were discussed.
“One item of interest is that the federal government agencies are continuing to promote local school districts requiring lap-shoulder belts in their buses,” Hood says, adding that Florida currently requires buses to have two-point lap belts. “Lap-shoulder belts would be an upgrade, so to speak.”
Lap-shoulder belts consist of three point restraints, and have been in cars for many years. Recently, a new bill was introduced by Congressman Steve Cohen of Tennessee that would create federal grants to equip school buses with lap-shoulder belts, according to an article in the School Bus Fleet newsletter. As well, the bill would create federal grants to install school buses with motion-activated detection systems.
Hood says, at this moment, there’s no guarantee that the bill will go anywhere. However, the legislation comes in the wake of the school bus crash in Chattanooga, Tennessee in November this past year. Six students died and 20 were injured.
“Even though we don’t know all the details about the recent tragic crash in Chattanooga, it’s certainly adding interest to the discussion of whether or not lap-shoulder belts would have made a difference. When the National Transportation Safety Board completes its investigation and publishes its findings and safety recommendations, we will be very interested. As always, NASDPTS will help NTSB promote any improvements to the already unparalleled safety of school buses,” Hood says.
Since 2001, Florida law requires school buses to have safety belts, and most of them are two-point ones. However, Hood says a few schools have already started purchasing lap-shoulder belts, including in St. Lucie County.
In addition to lap-shoulder belts, stop-arm cameras and illegal passing were primary topicsdiscussed at the meeting.
“It was really more about ways that we can prevent illegal passing of school buses, which most of us know to be the No. 1 safety problem involving school buses,” Hood adds. “School buses are incredibly safer than the other ways that kids get to school. The biggest vulnerability, though, is cars and motorists not stopping for buses. That’s a problem that’s been well-documented for many years. At the meeting on Dec. 1, NHTSA administrator Dr. Mark Rosekind closed the session by committing the agency to a national campaign to educate motorists and do whatever can be done to mitigate that problem.”
Hood explains that stop-arm cameras, while helpful in providing photo evidence, are not yet a deterrent to illegal passing in Florida. Under current Florida law, photo evidence cannot be used in court to secure a criminal conviction. In order for a citation to be issued, the violation has to be witnessed by a sworn law enforcement officer.
“It’s really of little practical use yet in Florida, other than to see where the violations are occurring,” Hood says. “Although that can help in identifying areas for follow-up by law enforcement, photo evidence by itself isn’t legally authorized yet.”
Another item of recent interest was the release of the final rule from the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) that requires all new applicants for commercial driver’s licenses (CDLs) to go through a specified level of training called entry-level driver training (ELDT).
“It essentially will, for the first time, impose federal requirements for a certain amount of training for all new CDL applicants, following a three-year phase-in. It won’t become effective until early 2020,” Hood says. “We’re not anticipating it will be overly difficult for most school districts to comply with.”