Cohen bill would provide fed funding for school bus seat belts

News release from U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Memphis

[WASHINGTON, DC] – Congressman Steve Cohen (TN-09), a member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, today introduced the Bring Enhanced Liability in Transportation for Students (BELTS) Act to help protect children who ride on school buses. The bill would create federal grants to purchase new school buses with lap/shoulder seat belts or equip existing ones with such belts and creates federal grants to equip school buses with motion-activated detection systems.

The bill would also direct the Secretary of Transportation to withhold 10% of a state’s apportionment of certain federal-aid highway funds if the state has not enacted a law that requires the employer to conduct background checks before hiring school bus drivers. Finally, the bill would direct the Secretary to withhold 10% of federal highway funding if the state has not enacted and is not enforcing a law that imposes specified first offense and second offense civil or criminal penalties for motorists found guilty of illegally passing a stopped school bus.

“Last month’s horrific school bus crash that killed six children in Chattanooga, Tennessee was a wake-up call,” said Congressman Cohen. “When it comes to protecting our school children, safety must come first. To date, only six states require seat belts on school buses. When I was in the Tennessee State Senate, I sponsored a bill to require seat belts on school buses, yet it was opposed by the industry and never received a vote in committee.

“On average, there are 134 school-transportation-related fatalities per year. Seat belts, background checks for drivers and other measures could help reduce future disasters. I urge my colleagues to support this common sense legislation to protect our children riding on school buses.”

Further, from the News Sentinel:

The bill is largely symbolic, as it was filed just days before Congress is expected to adjourn for the year. Cohen will likely have to reintroduce it next year.

Former state Rep. Joe Armstrong proposed a similar bill in the Tennessee General Assembly after the rollover bus crash that killed two children and a teacher’s aide in Knoxville in 2014. Armstrong’s bill died in the Transportation Committee due to opposition over expenses, he said Wednesday. He said he believes Cohen is “definitely moving in the right direction,” but “has an uphill battle.”

“How many more tragedies do we need to have?” Armstrong said. “Although I’m not in the Legislature anymore, I’m still an advocate out here in the public that seat belts save lives.”

Armstrong said his 2014 research placed the cost at around $9,000 to equip a new bus with seat belts and around $13,000 to retrofit a bus with seat belts. Those figures were too high for contracted school bus operators who opposed the bill, he said.

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