"Click It or Ticket" -- so goes one of America's most successful enforcement campaigns for seat belt laws. But the death earlier this year of a Connecticut teenager has many wondering why the slogan hasn't applied to children on school buses.
This week, the debate heated up.
"We need to do the right thing for our children," said Connecticut Gov. M. Jodi Rell in a statement this week, promising to allocate funds toward school bus replacements. "When the state orders new buses, they must come equipped with seat belts."
The pressure to enforce stricter seat belt laws could go beyond school buses. Earlier today, a fatal accident involving a commercial bus in Phoenix, Arizona killed six passengers and injured at least 15. It was not clear if the bus had seat belts, as some smaller vehicles do.
All 50 states, with the exception of New Hampshire, have an adult safety belt law, but only six states have passed a bill requiring seat belts in school buses.
According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, school buses are roughly seven times safer than passenger cars or light trucks. Despite that statistic, advocates for legislation promoting seat belts on buses say the lack of a law is counterintuitive.
"Every day, we put our children on a school bus, and the school bus drivers, they have seat belts," Connecticut State Rep. Tony Guerrera told ABC News. "You and I travel to work in vehicles that have seat belts and airbags. But for some reason, when it comes to the children, we don't have a mechanism in place that would prevent a tragedy like this from happening."
Guerrera, the Democratic co-chairman of the Transportation Committee, is author of a bill that would mandate the installation of lap and shoulder seat belts, also called a three-point safety restraint system, in school buses by January 2011. The committee is expected to vote on the bill next week. If it passes, the legislation likely will be introduced in the general assembly by April.
New York was the first state to pass a seat belt law for school buses, followed by New Jersey, California, Florida, Texas and Louisiana. While those six states have a law in place, not all of the states require lap and shoulder belts and others have not been enforced due to insufficient funding.
Fueled by grassroots coalitions, typically 20 to 30 states take up the issue each year, some localities getting further along in the process than others. Select school districts across the country have choosen to install seat belts without a statewide mandate.
According to the National Association of Pupil Transportation, the country's largest school bus industry association, outfitting buses with belts costs $7,000 to $11,000 per bus. Opponents of a seat belt law point to such additional costs and cite concerns about liability and enforcement.
"We're concerned about who will be responsible for ensuring that the children put the belts on," Connecticut School Transportation Association executive director Bill Moore told ABC News. "If that's the driver, we believe that's going to provide problems for children outside of the school bus."