Rudy Breglia, Holly Moore Kowalski and Sue Cole

Avon Lake residents Rudy Breglia, left, and Holly Moore Kowalski of the Avon Lake School Bus Safety Alliance try out the seatbelts on of the school district's two new school buses at the urging of Sue Cole, transportation supervisor for Avon Lake City Schools.

Avon Lake students will hear a new command from the bus driver: “Buckle up.”

The district has added two new buses to its 33-bus fleet that are equipped with lap-shoulder seat belts.

The buses will be used on daily routes, as well as for field trips and sporting events when school resumes Aug. 26, said Susan Cole, transportation supervisor for Avon Lake City Schools.

"Our biggest concern is getting the students to put on their seat belts," Cole said. "When kids get in a car with their parents, they usually put on their seat belts, and we hope they do the same on the school bus.”

Up to three students can sit in each seat, Cole said.

The two buses arrived June 14. Each of its 24 seats is equipped with three lap-shoulder seat belts.

The district had considered purchasing school buses with seat belts within the last few years, according to Avon Lake Schools Superintendent Bob Scott, and it moved forward at the urging of Avon Lake residents Rudy Breglia and Holly Moore Kowalski. Both serve on the School Bus Safety Alliance, an advocacy group striving to bring awareness to school bus injuries and deaths due to the lack of seat belts.The alliance also procures private and public funding to help school districts pay for buses with seat belts.

Breglia began lobbying the district after a school bus rollover crash in Chattanooga, Tennessee, in November 2016. The accident killed six elementary school students ages 6 through 10. The bus driver, who was talking on his cell phone and hit a tree, was sentenced to four years in prison for

criminally negligent homicide.

“After that crash, we started looking seriously at purchasing school buses with seat belts,” Scott said. “It has taken us a couple years to get to the point where we have actually replaced two old buses with new ones equipped with them.”

In February, the school board agreed to spend nearly $200,000 to buy the two buses from Cardinal, located in north central Ohio. Each bus cost $92,000 including $8,500 for 72 seat belts.

That tragedy hit home for Breglia, who has two granddaughters, ages 7 and 10, in Avon Lake schools. He began speaking to many school districts about school bus crashes and the need for seat belts on buses.

“It was their (Breglia’s and Kowalski’s) efforts that pushed the district toward looking into purchasing the buses with seat belts and seeing how they worked out,” Cole said.

A pilot program will last through the upcoming school year. The district plans to collect data and review variables, such as how long it takes the kids to strap themselves in the seat and how long it would collectively take them to get the belts off during an evacuation, Scott said.

“Although there are plenty of statistics out there regarding school bus crashes and involving school bus safety, we will be able to get our own data,” Scott said. “The most important thing is getting kids to and from school safely, and we truly believe they will.”

Bus drivers are in training, and Scott said the data collected could prompt the district to gradually replace its other buses with ones that have seat belts.

Breglia and Kowalski recently tried out the seat belts on one of Avon Lake’s buses and said the district is taking the right steps for student safety.

Kowalski said placing seat belts on school buses is a “common sense” thing.

“Getting school buses with seat belts was a good move,” Kowalski said. “Even when I was in high school and riding a school bus, I thought they should have seat belts.”

Seat-belt performance will be monitored for safety and behavior and their use will be assessed for any in-house training as needed, Cole said.

Although the two buses are equipped with seat belts, it's still legal for passengers not to wear them because the buses weigh over 10,000 pounds, Cole said. Students must wear seat belts on commercial motor coaches, smaller school buses and vans, Breglia said.

Scott said, “Kids take to seat belts pretty quickly because they have to put them on in the car. “We would hope they put them on right away when they get on the school bus.”

Most Ohio school buses have "compartmentalized" seats that have tall backs and are built for impact, Cole said. If a school bus crashes, the seats have enough padding to cushion its passengers and better prevent them from being seriously injured.

But in a rollover crash, students are more likely to fall out of their seats or hit other students and other parts of the bus, which can cause serious or fatal injuries.

In nearly 55 years, just one student has been killed in a school bus crash in Zanesville in 2010. It was the first time in 45 years that a student died in a school bus crash.

Currently, five states — Arkansas, California, Nevada, New York and Texas — require school buses to have lap-shoulder seat belts. 

As other schools in the region are turning to Avon Lake for advice and information on the lap-shoulder seat belts, Ohio House Bill 680 and U.S. House Bill 6773 are under review. Both propose making lap-shoulder seat belts a law for school districts.

"We're hoping that the chances of a rollover crash in Avon Lake are low," Cole said. "The highest speed limit in Avon Lake is 35 mph, but when students are transported to field trips and sporting events, that can involve highway driving at higher speeds. Now, new buses are being equipped with electronic stabilization that can prevent a rollover. We'll see how the new buses work."

Contact this reporter at msakal@westlifenews.com or 440-871-5797.

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