SACRAMENTO — Siding with parents on the emotional issue of school bus safety, the Assembly overwhelmingly approved legislation Thursday that could require the installation of seat belts on new buses beginning next year.
By a vote of 68 to 2, the Assembly approved a measure that would require all school buses purchased after June 30, 1987, to be equipped with seat belts--provided that a proposed study by the California Highway Patrol proves that the restraints would reduce injuries.
"There are children in this state who could have been saved if they had that seat belt available to them," said Assemblywoman Gloria Molina (D-Los Angeles), the author of the bill.
Molina's bill would make California the first state in the nation to require seat belts on school buses, although an estimated 75 school districts around the country have independently taken such action.
The issue has been clouded by disagreement over whether seat belts would provide more protection for children or, perhaps, cause greater injury in the event of an accident. The Highway Patrol study would be aimed at finding the answer.
Parents, including the parents of children killed in bus accidents, have campaigned for the installation of seat belts on the grounds that they would make their children safer, just as they do in automobiles.
But the California Department of Education and many school administrators have resisted, saying that school buses are already one of the safest modes of transportation and that belts would be too costly to install. The Department of Education has taken no position on Molina's bill.
Molina estimated that the requirement to install seat belts would add $1,800 to the price of each school bus. The buses now cost about $90,000 apiece.
Just last year, the Legislature approved a measure that requires all occupants of cars and trucks to wear seat belts but did not consider belts for bus passengers.
While Molina's measure would require school buses to be equipped with seat belts, using them would be voluntary, not a requirement. Nor would it require the installation of seat belts on buses not used specifically to transport students.
She said her measure has been endorsed by physicians' groups such as the American Academy of Pediatrics and the California Medical Assn., parents, teachers and race car driver Mario Andretti.
Warns of Potential Harm
Assemblyman Nolan Frizzelle (R-Huntington Beach), one of the two lawmakers to vote against the measure, called on his colleagues to reject the bill because, he said, seat belts could harm bus passengers.
"There is a question as to whether seat belts in those buses would indeed make more injurious accidents than do occur," Frizzelle said. "Students trapped in a bus by seat belts could be in peril."
Last year, Gov. George Deukmejian vetoed legislation that would have required school districts to modify or replace buses that do not meet federal 1977 safety standards. The governor said the measure would have cost too much, an estimated $175 million.
This year, he has proposed spending $100 million to replace the older buses.