Cost is at the center of a debate over requiring seatbelts on school buses in Ohio

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COLUMBUS, Ohio (Statehouse News Bureau) — Aiden Clark, 11, died on his first day of school, when one of the many school buses on its way to Northwestern Local Schools rolled over after being struck by a minivan.

A school bus in a parking lot with its door open
[RozenskiP |]
That crash in Lawrenceville in Clark County in western Ohio fatally ejected the elementary-aged student from the bus and seriously injured more than 20 others. It’s led to renewed efforts to pass school bus safety policies, including at the Statehouse.

State lawmakers are currently considering House Bill 279, which would require buses to have a seatbelt for each individual on board. Rep. Bernie Willis (R-Springfield), whose Clark County home is about two miles from the site of the crash, has led the charge. In early October, Willis called HB 279 “life-saving legislation” during testimony.

Lawmakers tend to agree on the need for policies that prioritize children’s safety. “I don’t think you’ll find anybody in this Statehouse that doesn’t feel that way,” said Rep. Sara Carruthers (R-Hamilton).

But Carruthers and other House Transportation Committee members, both Republicans and Democrats, have questions on the proposal. Chief among them is how schools, or the companies that rent and lease buses to them, would be able to fund retrofitting their fleets.

“We’re talking about an unfunded mandate on our communities,” said Rep. Juanita Brent (D-Cleveland). “What are we going to do with the cities that can’t fund that?”

Under HB 279, schools or leasing and rental agencies would have five years to make the changeover. A fiscal analysis by the Ohio Legislative Service Commission figures the bill would cost districts between $282 million and $376 million to add the belts—estimated at about $600 to $800 per seat, or $14,400 to $19,200 per bus.

The National Transportation Safety Board writes on its website that school buses are “the safest vehicles on the road,” but for years has recommended including lap and shoulder belts on new buses to prevent crashes from becoming more serious or fatal.

Few states have followed through. Only eight states have laws on the books that require all buses to have belts, and three of those eight are at the whim of localities, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Following the August crash, Gov. Mike DeWine also formed a commission to study school bus safety in general. They could make recommendations by the end of this year, according to a DeWine spokesperson.