Cullen began circulating legislation in early September to make seat belts mandatory on all newly purchased school buses.
"The fact that we are required to wear seat belts in cars, yet allow our children to roll down the road at 55 mph without them is completely outrageous to me," Cullen said in announcing his proposal, which since has received co-sponsors and is awaiting action in the Senate Transportation Committee.
"This is the beginning of a process, but I’m optimistic that it will get a public hearing," said Cullen, whose 15th District includes Janesville, most of northern and western Rock County and Whitewater and the town of Whitewater in Walworth County. "Sure, there’s opposition to it, but my feeling is that someday, it could be this year or next year, but that it will become law.
"If we had a bill to repeal (seat belts) in cars and trucks, it wouldn’t have a chance," he added. "Right now, every little baby from the time they leave the hospital is in a restraint system of some kind, so it’s amazing to me that we don’t have the same expectation for our kids when they ride a school bus."
Federal law requires buses that weigh less than 5 tons to be equipped with seat belts; the standard, larger and more common vehicles weigh more than that.
Cullen knows that it could be an uphill climb: The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the Wisconsin Association of School Boards are among the groups that oppose such a mandate.
Reaction to Cullen’s announcement received mixed reviews on walworthcountytoday.com’s Facebook page (see accompanying graphic at right).
Cullen cites accidents in Illinois last April and one most recently in Rockton in August to illustrate the need for such legislation.
However, many school officials in the Stateline area weren’t aware of Cullen’s efforts and said the topic had not been discussed much, if at all, in their districts.
But they acknowledged that they would take the necessary steps depending what happens in Madison and emphasized that students’ safety is the overriding goal regardless of what law is or is not on the books.
"The safety of our students is a top priority for all of us working in the Delavan-Darien School District," Superintendent Robert Crist said. "If studies show that adding seat belts to all seats on school buses increases student safety while they are on the bus, I would support such legislation. If it could be done without taking away resources needed in the classroom, that would be ideal. A grant program could help defray costs that may otherwise add financial obligations to local school districts if such legislation were passed."
Elkhorn Area School District business manager Bill Trewyn and Whitewater Unified School District Administrator Eric Runez said they would take a wait-and-see approach before addressing the issues involved.
"It’s not something we’ve been talking about and this is the first I’ve heard of this," Trewyn said. "The idea of seat belts (on school buses) comes up once in awhile, but I’ve seen it more on a national level. There have been a number of studies with different views, yet we still don’t have (mandatory) seat belts. But that doesn’t mean it won’t be discussed here, and it’s good to look at the whole situation. We always want to do what’s best for the safety of the kids."
"We do have seat belts on the buses to take kids to Lakeland and for our early childhood students, and a couple of buses have them to accommodate students with disabilities," Runez said. "But we have not had any discussion in our district. If the Legislature were to pass something, then we would move forward and we would talk to our bus service provider and rely on them to tell us how many seats and everything."
The Whitewater district has contracted with Nelson’s Bus Service since 1940, and co-owner Dave Nelson said he hasn’t seen or heard about a big push for seat belts.
"The topic resurfaces every now and then, but it usually depends on something like this with Senator Cullen to get things stirred up and people talking about it," Nelson said. "National data shows that the majority of casualties occur outside of the passenger compartment, with students and others while crossing the roads. The (NHTSA) theory deals with compartmentalization, where the seats are closer and act as barriers to help restrain children during a crash."
Cullen doesn’t buy that argument.
"If a school bus absorbs a good hit, kids will go flying," Cullen said. "One group I wanted to hear from was paramedics, and those I’ve talked to, they’ve all said that it’s night and day between those who are or aren’t wearing seat belts and getting tossed out of vehicles and whether they survive."
His proposal is similar to a policy the Janesville School Board adopted while he was a member several years ago, and the district has paid $141,000 to Van Galder Bus Co. for equipping buses with three-point belts since 2010, meaning 11 of its 27 large buses have belts. The School District of Beloit also recently adopted a seat belt policy.
Cullen’s bill would require only school buses manufactured after the effective date to have seat belts and states that all passengers need to wear them.
Critics say that getting children, especially teenagers, to wear the belts is an issue, thus making enforcement a problem. And they point to the fact that some kids use the belts as weapons.
Again, Cullen said it would take time to adapt to change.
"I’ve heard all of the arguments, and I don’t think the one about kids hitting kids with the belts holds enough water … they can bring ... other things in their backpacks and do the same thing," he said. "When seat belts were introduced back in the early 1960s, they were optional on vehicles. When we made it mandatory to wear seat belts back in 1984, it only passed (the Legislature) by an 18-15 margin, and now there wouldn’t be much question.
"We have to recognize that when we first mandated seat belt use in cars we had about a 65-percent compliance rate and now it’s up in the 80s or better," Cullen added, noting that motor coach companies such as Greyhound are adding seat belts to their newer buses. "And surveys show that for people under age 30, the rate is easily in the 90s. They’ve grown up with seat belts, so they’re used to them. It’s a matter of changing attitudes over time."
Another concern is cost, especially because of school funding cuts in recent years. Cullen said the legislation takes the financial impact into consideration.
The bill creates a grant program through the school funding formula and transportation aids, which would reimburse districts 50 percent of the costs.
"We’re sensitive to school districts," Cullen said. "When the Janesville School Board adopted its policy, it wasn’t a slam dunk. To get the necessary five votes, the agreement was to go year by year. So I’ve wondered ever since whether they would keep it going, and they have. Even since Act 10, the board has expressed no desire to stop."