Texas seat belt law fails to protect students

A college graduation. A wedding announcement. A baby shower. These are happy events Brad Brown will never share with his daughter.

“I see her teammates and where they are in life, and I do think that would be Ashley,” Brown said.

Next March will mark a decade since he last saw Ashley alive. On March 29, 2006, the 16-year-old West Brook High School sophomore was traveling to a playoff game with her soccer team when their bus overturned on a rainy highway.

A bus carrying the West Brook High School girls soccer team overturned on March 29, 2006, killing two students.
A bus carrying the West Brook High School girls soccer team overturned on March 29, 2006, killing two students.

"I thought that I would go to the hospital to meet the girls returning,” he recalled. “Ashley never made it back."

About 20 people were injured when the bus toppled into a ditch along Highway 90 near Devers. Ashley and her teammate, Alicia Bonura, 18, were killed. There were no seat belts on board.

"That would have allowed them to stay in the seat in the bus, even surviving an accident as horrible as that one,” he said.

In the days to follow the crash, Brown was approached by Steve Forman, whose own daughter, Allison, 17, had been pinned under the bus for nearly an hour.

“(Allison) was thrown violently from her seat,” Forman said. “We were in the hospital for the next 30 days, trying to put her back together. By some miracle, they decided not to amputate her arm.”

L: Ashley Brown, 16; R: Alicia Bonura, 18, died in the crash.
L: Ashley Brown, 16; R: Alicia Bonura, 18, died in the crash.

Over the next several months, Forman, Brown and other families worked with lawmakers to pass “Ashley and Alicia’s Law,” which created the Texas School Bus Seat Belt Program – an effort to put lap-shoulder belts on all new buses in the state, if state funding is available.

Today, that program has done little to increase safety for students. Just four of the state’s near-1,300 school districts got funding. And the program’s account has remained empty for the past three legislative sessions.

"There was money available, but there was no demand for money,” Brown said. “Why? School administrators were not looking to put three-point lap-shoulder belts on school buses."

'School buses should have seat belts. Period'

Until this month, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) – which is responsible for regulating school buses – had an unclear stance on seat belts for students.

While the safety measure is already a federal requirement on smaller buses – those typically used by special education students – the agency has said the decision to add seat belts on large buses should be left to the state or local school district.

But recently a joint session of the National Association for Pupil Transportation (NAPT) and National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services (NASDPTS) conferences in Richmond, the head of the NHTSA, Mark Rosekind, shared a new federal policy position.

“Our position is that seat belts save lives,” Rosekind said. “That is true in a passenger car or a big, yellow bus.”

Rosekind justified the shift, in part, with traffic data showing 70 percent of all teen fatalities in crashes are tied to not buckling up. The agency had previously concluded having belts on school buses nationwide would save two lives every year.

Stopping short of announcing a mandate, he outlined how the agency will work with other federal agencies to find potential funding for states and local districts.

“Concentrate on this simple basic statement: School buses should have seat belts. Period," said Rosekind.

Safety comes at a cost

Many Texas school transportation directors say it’s not a simple decision to make. Costly requirements could limit the number of buses for some districts and maybe force students to take less safe options to school.

The state has estimated a $100 million cost each year to keep up with districts regularly replacing their buses - and adding seat belts. One bus alone costs at least $80,000, plus another $7-10,000 for belts.

In 2007, when lawmakers created the School Bus Seat Belt Program, the state appropriated $10 million to the Texas Education Agency to reimburse districts for the cost of adding seat belts to new buses they purchase.

The program launched in 2010, and 12 districts applied for the first round of funding. Only four of those districts met TEA’s list of qualifications and received the money – just $500,000 total.

"It's very difficult to award money when the districts themselves don't show an interest in it,” said TEA spokesman Gene Acuna. “Obviously, the program did not meet what they were hoping to do.”

Acuna explained many district administrators likely avoided the program, because it would only reimburse them for the cost of the seat belts—not the full amount of the bus.

Faced with little interest and a sudden budget cut after the first round of applicants, the TEA slashed most money from the program and swept the remainder into other agency projects. In legislative sessions to follow, TEA leaders did not request additional funding for seat belts.

“A decision had to be made,” Acuna said. “Do you continue to fund a program that had limited appeal to school districts or do you hope that the legislature re-visits and makes it a program that's worth the effort to seek the money out."

Acuna added a statewide mandate would be an expensive endeavor, but the author of the legislation behind the seat belt program said such an action is not off the table.

Sen. Eddie Lucio, D-Brownsville, worked with Beaumont parents and bus crash surviors to craft the seat belt law. He now admits it has not lived up to what he promised.

"I feel badly over that, and it's something I hopefully won't forget this next session,” Lucio said, when asked why he failed to work to fund the program after its first round of funding.

During KXAN’s Investigation, Lucio wrote to Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, R-Texas, urging him to add the issue to a list of items for lawmakers to study ahead of the next session in 2017. He said they could consider more money or maybe a statewide seat belt mandate, even if funding is not available.

Lucio’s actions came just days after a Houston school bus crash killed two more students.

"Unfortunately, it takes a tragic accident to get awareness of what we should be doing and giving priority to. I'm going to make sure that we find out what kind of money we have here.”

Prioritizing seat belts

With no available funding to trigger the legal requirement for seat belts, many Texas districts have purchased buses without the safety feature.

Austin ISD was one of the few districts to receive state funding. Since spending what it was awarded, it has made seat belts a priority in its finances, including lap-shoulder belts on every bus purchased.

Seat belts on AISD school bus
Seat belts on AISD school bus (Josh Hinkle/KXAN News)

“Our students have to go to school no matter what,” said Kris Hafezizadeh, AISD transportation director. “We’ve got to do whatever we can to keep them safe.”

Hafezizadeh explained that his district purchased buses with belts through a bond after state funding dried up. He knows many school districts do not have that option. Some districts have questioned whether seat belts actually make buses safer and perhaps make a bus driver’s job more challenging.

“Our bus divers cannot view every child while they’re driving to tell whether they have their seat belts on or off,” he said. “But that’s no reason for us to stop purchasing them or adding them on buses.”

Misleading reports

Unlike AISD, some districts in the state have not followed another part of the seat belt law. It also requires school districts to report all bus accidents and injuries to the TEA.

But KXAN discovered many of those reports are misleading and sometimes incomplete. Nearly 200 districts and charter schools - about 16 percent statewide - failed to turn in numbers for the 2014-2015 school year.

The purpose of reporting those numbers, in part, was to hold districts accountable for safety and to give lawmakers the complete and accurate information needed to make informed decisions regarding school buses in the future.

Acuna said the TEA relies on school administrators to “live up to the obligations that are set out in law,” adding that lawmakers would have to statutorily give the agency the power to make districts comply. “There is no enforcement mechanism if districts don't report those numbers. We offer reminders, and we offer notices to school districts when certain data has to be reported into the agency throughout the course of the year.”

Lucio said the reporting requirement should also be tweaked when lawmakers re-visit the issue in the coming months to “strengthen the law that’s already on the books.”

Search your school district's bus records

KXAN obtained data from all 34 school districts in Central Texas on how many bus crashes the district has had over the past few years along with how many of their buses are equipped with seat belts.

Decade of frustration

Nearly 10 years after the crash that changed their lives, the West Brook fathers are still working to move on, frustrated over the failure of the seat belt program.

Forman’s daughter is now an architect in her mid-20s and married.

“(Allison has) had to rehabilitate and train herself to use (her arm) as best she can,” Forman said. “I hate knowing this is going to happen to another family if school administrators and the state don’t do something now.”

Brown said an “effective legislative effort” would be a “beautiful thing in Ashley’s memory.”

“It would be the smart thing to do,” he said. “It’s what we ought to do for our kids.”

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