MISSOULA – Missoula County Public Schools leaders plan to ask the district’s contractor to begin adding seat belts to school buses starting as soon as this year.
“We’ve come to clearly understand that this is a student life safety matter. And I think it’s incumbent upon us to do everything we can to ensure [the] safety of the students on the buses as we transport them to and from school.”
That was the message Superintendent Mark Thane had for the school board this week, as he informed them the district will ask for the installation of full seat belt and harness systems on the buses, as it begins negotiations on a new multi-year contract with Beach Transportation.
Although Montana doesn’t require bus belts — only four states do — Thane says the time has come for them to be installed.
Helena has already taken that step and while Thane says while today’s buses are safer, the “compartmentalization” doesn’t protect kids when there’s a side impact, or when buses roll over.
Thane says the changes wouldn’t happen overnight. MCPS will ask Beach to have belts on all new buses, starting this summer, and to begin retrofitting all 2010 and later buses — a total of 42 buses in all.
“We believe, based on manufacturer’s recommendations that those buses can be retrofitted with three-point harnesses,” Thane said. “That’s a seat belt, lap belt, as well as a shoulder harness. It does carry an expense, about $10,000 a bus to do that retrofitting.”
Thane says MCPS will ask Beach to assign older buses that can be modified to slower, shorter in-town routes. He also told the board that there could be some added benefits, such as better behavior.
“When students wear seat belts and remain in their seats and face forward the number of conduct reports on the buses is reduced significantly,” Thane said.
“We also note that one of the reasons that bus accidents do happen on occasion is distracted drivers. And that distraction is often a result of student activity on the bus. So anything we can do to help alleviate that concern is also important,” he added.
The district opens contract talks with Beach Transportation later this month. MCPS plans to pay for the seat belts by asking voters to re-authorize the existing transportation levy.