School buses and bus safety will be a priority for some state and local officials in the legislative session that began Tuesday.
Three bills mandating seat belts in full-size school buses have been prefiled as well as one bill to update the school bus fleet, which is one of state Superintendent of Education Molly Spearman's goals.
Rep. Gary Clary, a Clemson Republican, was motivated to prefile his seat belt bill after he met with a third-grade class at Clemson Elementary School.
"Two of them presented me with a letter that asked why there were no seat belts on buses and what could be done about it," Clary said.
"I'm always amazed at how insightful third-graders are when they visit the State House and when I come to visit them," Clary added. "When you see things through the eyes of children, your perspective is changed."
He was in the midst of preparing the bill when a bus crashed in Tennessee killing five elementary school children. That incident strengthened his resolve to file the bill and also prompted Rep. Leola Robinson-Simpson, D-Greenville, to propose a bill mandating lap and shoulder seat belts in school buses.
In recent years California, Florida, New Jersey, New York and Texas have passed legislation mandating seat belts in school buses.
School buses are considered the safest way for students to get to school. On average, The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reported about 134 people die in school-vehicle-related crashes each year, but only 8 percent of them were riding in buses.
The way school buses are designed, the high backs of seats act as protective barrier for students if the bus were to be hit from behind or in front, said Anderson School District 3 Transportation Director Cindy Watkins. However, not all accidents are head-on or from the behind.
Clary and Robinson-Simpson are calling for South Carolina to be proactive in increasing bus safety.
"We don't need to wait until an accident occurs," Robinson-Simpson said. "I think it's long overdue."
Watkins said she supports the bills if the state pays for it. She's in favor of the seat belts and when the district ordered three new activity buses about four years ago, they came with seat belts. Now, she wants to get the buses outfitted with shoulder straps.
"I feel like it would be safer," Watkins said. "If the bus flips, it keeps students from being as injured. Buses are safe ... but I think they could be safer."
In other news, Spearman announced Monday her plan to replace part of the South Carolina school bus fleet. The state has 5,582 school buses. Of those, the five Anderson County School districts have 194 school buses. About 50 percent of the state's fleet are more than 15 years old with some manufactured in 1988. Spearman said about 45 percent of the buses need to be replaced and has asked the General Assembly for $95 million to buy more than 1,000 buses.
"We can no longer wait to address the needs of our state's student transportation system," Spearman said in a statement. "I am committed to working tirelessly with our state's leaders to ensure students have safe and reliable transportation for years to come."
Rep. Robert Brown, D-Charleston, filed a bill prohibiting buses more than 15 years old as a way to help keep the fleet updated.
The old buses are costly in fuel and maintenance, while the new buses the state is buying through a lease-to-own program have Wi-Fi, air conditioning and are also equipped to install seat belts if the need arises. Older buses would be difficult and costly to equip with seat belts, and installing them would limit the buses to two children per seat, Spearman said.
Clary said the biggest hurdle of passing a bill like his would be cost. Once a study is done, he said the state General Assembly would have a better idea if this was feasible.
"I am hopeful we can come up with a workable solutions to begin to address this issue," he said.