Kids - your bus ride to school this fall may require you to buckle up.
School District 833 has purchased 10 new buses with lap and shoulder harnesses. They'll replace an equal number of retired vehicles.
The district will swap out additional vehicles over a period of 10-12 years, until all 109 of their general education school buses have seat belts.
They are among the first school districts in the state to implement a seat belt program for their entire fleet. Small school buses are already required to have seat belts.
"It's not mandated by the legislature yet, but we're trying to get ahead of the curve," director of transportation operations Carrie Olson said. "We feel that seat belts will become the norm."
The seat belts add an extra $10,000 to the total $96,643 cost of each new bus, Olson said.
About 10 states require seat belts on all school buses. Earlier this month, Iowa joined their ranks after the State Board of Education passed their own law.
A bill that would mandate seat belts on new school buses was introduced earlier this year in the Minnesota State Senate.
The 10 new buses in District 833 "have been assigned to all grade levels at schools throughout the district," director of communications Shelly Schafer said in an email.
But is it worth the extra cost? School buses already are outfitted with numerous safety features. They're built to withstand and redistribute the impact of a crash. Seats are designed to be separate, self-contained protective shells, an engineering design known as compartmentalization. Seats are bolted to the floor, closely-spaced and cushioned with shock-absorbing foam.
"School buses are extremely safe," said Lt. Brian Reu, state director of pupil transportation for the Minnesota Department of Public Safety. "They're eight times safer than traveling by any other mode of transportation."
Seat belts could prove most beneficial in side impact or rollover crashes, he said.
"I think anytime you talk seat belts, you are increasing the safety aspect of a school bus," he said.
Children are most at risk walking to and from a bus. In 2017, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) reported that 174 children were killed in school transportation-related crashes from 2003 to 2012. Fifty-five were passengers; 119 were pedestrians.
But last year, the NTSB took the unprecedented step of urging the passage of school bus seat belt laws in states that didn't already have them.
The recommendation was part of an investigation into two fatal school bus crashes in November 2016. Six adults were killed in a school bus crash in Baltimore. Later that month, six children died in a school bus crash in Chattanooga, Tenn.
Seat belts aren't a panacea, however. The NTSB ruled that both crashes were caused by "deficiencies in driver oversight." They also recommended that new school buses be equipped with braking and collision avoidance systems.
Andy Smith, assistant director of transportation operations for District 833, cited one immediate benefit of seat belts: less distracted school bus drivers. Strapped-in kids are less prone to rowdiness and horseplay.
"We believe the students will find some more structure on the bus staying in their own seats," Smith said.
While the seat belts add 10% to the total cost of each bus, that cost is partially offset by a new, less expensive engine design, he said.