In response to the Farmingdale High School marching band charter bus accident, a proposed state bill would require most passengers in charter buses to wear safety belts or face fines. Credit: Newsday

ALBANY — State legislation prompted by September’s fatal crash of a charter bus carrying members of the Farmingdale High School marching band would require most passengers in charter buses to wear safety belts or face fines.

The bill would close what advocates have long called a flaw in law: Although a 2013 federal law requires seat belts in charter buses manufactured since 2016, nothing requires they be used.

The state bill would require charter bus passengers 8 years and older to use safety restraints on motor coaches. A violation could bring a $50 fine against passengers who refuse. Police could ticket the parents of passengers 8 to 15 years old if the violation happened when the parent or guardian was present on the trip, according to the bill.

The measure with strong sponsors in the State Senate and Assembly is in reaction to the crash on Sept. 21, when a charter bus carrying Farmingdale band members went down a 50-foot ravine in Orange County. The crash left two adults dead and dozens of students injured in the trip to a marching band camp in Pennsylvania.

WHAT TO KNOW

  • A bill in Albany would require charter bus passengers 8 years and older to use safety restraints on motor coaches.
  • The bill would close what advocates have long called a flaw in law: Although a 2013 federal law requires seat belts in charter buses manufactured since 2016, nothing requires they be used.
  • The measure is in reaction to the Sept. 21 crash of a charter bus carrying members of the Farmingdale High School marching band that killed two adults and injured dozens of students.

“The federal government basically mandated we put the seat belts in buses,” Assembly Transportation Committee Chairman William Magnarelli (D-Syracuse) told Newsday. “So, you would think we would use them.”

The National Transportation Safety Board continues to investigate the crash. Its preliminary report noted “several occupants were ejected from the motor coach,” including the educators who died.

Weeks after the crash, part of one of the notices of claim filed by relatives of crash victims in preparation for a lawsuit accused the school district of not requiring students to wear seat belts.

Previous NTSB studies reported 17 to 21 deaths per year nationwide in charter bus crashes, with spikes as high as 28 deaths per year. The agency found the most common cause of deaths was rollovers, and using seat belts reduces the likelihood of a death by 77%.

The state bill drew immediate support from a national safety advocate.

“Seat belts are the first line of defense in a crash and should be required to be used by all passengers in all motor vehicles in all states,” said Cathy Chase, president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety based in Washington, D.C.

“Charter buses often carry numerous passengers, such as school-aged children, student athletes and marching bands, and when they are involved in a crash, it can be catastrophic,” Chase told Newsday. “In addition to buckling up, requiring advanced safety technologies like automatic emergency braking and intelligent speed assist would make roadways safer for all users … proven solutions to address these tragic, terrifying and totally preventable crashes must be implemented with urgency.”

The state bill would apply to charter buses made or assembled since 2016, which includes a large segment of such buses now on the road. That year aligns with the federal law requiring all large buses for hire built after November 2016 to have lap and shoulder seat belts.

Many companies, including Greyhound Lines, retrofitted older buses with seat belts following multimillion dollar settlements in lawsuits brought by passengers and their families. Many bus companies advise passengers that they can choose to use the safety belts.

The state bill is poised for a floor vote in the Democratic-led Assembly in coming days. In the Democratic-run Senate, the bill is sponsored by another powerful veteran, Transportation Committee Chairman Timothy Kennedy (D-Buffalo).

State lobbying records show no organized effort to oppose the bill.

Nationally, opponents have questioned who would enforce the law. They noted violators aren’t easily seen in high buses with tinted windows and oppose adding it to the duties of bus drivers.

Magnarelli said enforcement would be done with routine police stops, but the law also would raise awareness of the need as well as the common sense of using seat belts on buses. He noted that using seat belts on planes is now automatic without the need for constant enforcement. Seat belt laws have been in place for cars and trucks since 1984 and for air travel since 1971, and compliance is high, state and federal officials said.

Safety studies worldwide back up the need for seat belt use, even though charter buses have long been considered safer than most modes of transportation.

“Although the casualty rate per passenger kilometer for motor coach travelers is low in relation to other forms of transport, when collisions do occur, large numbers of people can be injured,” said a 1985 report commissioned by the European Union. “The ejection of passengers, which increase the chances of injury substantially, would probably be best prevented by the use of lap belts by passengers.”

A 1999 study by the National Transportation Safety Board in Washington, D.C. found when a bus traveling 60 mph crashes into a vehicle, the impact slows the bus to 50 mph. That means the maximum velocity of passenger striking an interior surface would be 10 mph, the study says. However, a passenger ejected from a bus traveling at 60 mph would hit the ground at a velocity of 60 mph.

“Seat belts save lives,” Magnarelli said. “I think that’s proven. We just have to get the public to realize they need to buckle up.”

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