Price of Safety: Seat Belts on Iowa School Buses Could Cost Tens of Millions of Dollars

DES MOINES, Iowa  --  Two school buses with seat belts worked so well last year that Des Moines Public Schools ordered eight more this year, officials say. But economic reality means the district won't soon accomplish its ultimate goal: seat belts on all buses.

Former Des Moines Public Schools Transportation Director Todd Liston said, "You hate to go back in there and say that you’re putting a price on safety, but you kind of are." (Note: Liston was still employed by the district during the research for this story).

Here is Liston's reality (all figures are approximate):

Cost of new bus: $90,000.

Cost of new bus with seat belts: $99,000.

Cost of replacing entire fleet with new buses that have seat belts: $12,000,000

Cost of adding seat belts to existing buses: $15,000. 

Cost of adding seat belts to all of state's 6,100 public school buses: $91,000,000.

The figures are disappointing to Daniel Johnson, who has been a bus driver for a dozen years. Last year, he drove one of the two buses the district tried with seat belts. This year he again drives a bus with seat belts.

"With the seat belts on, they’re in their seats. I’m sure of that," Johnson said. "I don’t have to worry bout them sliding off the seats."

Johnson said students quickly learn how to buckle and unbuckle the seat belts, which have a lap belt across the waist and a shoulder strap across the chest. However, he acknowledges, some younger students and students with special needs may need assistance, especially at the beginning of the school year.

Watch Chris Lacher describe the Pleasant Hill school bus on fire in 2011: 

But Pleasant Hill resident Robert Morris is concerned about what would happen in an emergency. As an eighth grader in 2011, his bus caught fire just a few blocks from his house. Morris helped lead students out of the back door before the bus eventually exploded.

"You’re clicking your seat belt, you’re panicking, you’re pulling on your seat belt," Morris said. "It just would have made things more complicated and taken more time."

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has changed its view over the years on recommending seat belts on school buses. Back in 2006, the NHTSA considered the belts unnecessary because of the bus design--taller, cushioned, closely-spaced together seats--it felt would lessen the impact of the collision on students. But by 2015, the administration decided seat belts proved beneficial in protecting students in a crash. It recommended that buses have them, but it stopped short of mandating seat belts.

The Iowa Department of Education doesn't take an official position on seat belts on buses. Six other states do mandate school buses have seat belts. 

Just one of Iowa's top-elected officials Channel 13 asked supports mandating that schools use buses with seat belts. The rest say local districts can decide, which means those local districts have to find a way to pay for the seat belts.

Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds, Republican from Osceola:

"Safety for children traveling to and from school is critically important. While school buses have a strong safety record, I applaud school districts for looking at ways to improve safety on buses, in cross walks and at vehicle pick up and drop off points at schools. I have confidence that local school officials are in the best position to make those decisions."

Iowa House Speaker Linda Upmeyer, Republican from Clear Lake:

“Student safety is something that we have typically left up to locally-elected school boards.  I haven’t heard any discussion about taking that authority away and opting for a statewide mandate.  We should trust local officials to make those decisions. From the state to the local level, ensuring the safety of Iowa’s students is something that is important to all of us.”

Iowa Senate Majority Leader Bill Dix, Republican from Shell Rock:

"I believe local school boards are best equipped to make decisions regarding seat belts on school busses."

Iowa Senate Minority Leader Janet Petersen, Democrat from Des Moines:

“Because the Republican-controlled Legislature has been underfunding K-12 schools for several years,  I am not interested in putting additional unfunded mandates on our local school districts and local taxpayers. If their budgets allow it, local School Boards should consider taking appropriate steps to improve the safety of students riding buses.”

Iowa House Minority Leader Mark Smith, Democrat from Marshalltown:

"Leader Smith supports keeping kids safe on school buses with seat belts."