These Duluth kids asked for school bus seat belts; St. Paul heard them

Sen. Erik Simonson speaks to the third graders in Duluth.
Sen. Erik Simonson speaks to the third graders at Laura MacArthur Elementary School on Monday about their letter campaign to have seat belts installed on school buses. Simonson recently drafted a bill regarding the issue.
Bob King | Duluth News Tribune

Think about this from a third-grader's perspective. From the day they were born, they were strapped into a car seat. Then a booster seat. Now their parents constantly harp them to strap on seat belts.

But then they step on a school bus, and there's not even the option to buckle up.

So when third-graders at Laura MacArthur Elementary School in Duluth were tasked with writing a letter to their local state senator, suggesting an idea for a bill to introduce, requiring seat belts on school buses seemed like a no-brainer.

"They were all just kind of, we have to wear them in cars, why don't we have to wear them on the bus?" explained Emily Glomski, whose class composed the letter just after the election.

Glomski assumed the class would get a polite reply, but little else.

To her surprise, state Sen. Erik Simonson, DFL-Duluth, decided to introduce a bill, inspired by her third-graders. Then, earlier this week, he visited the school to talk to the class.

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"The reason I'm here today, and the reason I've introduced a bill in the state Senate, is because of the work that you guys did," he told the students as they sat cross-legged in front of him in the school library. "That's the only reason."

Jayden Wynn asks, 'Has the president seen our note yet?'
Laura MacArthur third grader Jayden Wynn raises his hand to ask the question: "Has the president seen our note yet?" during Simonson's talk at the school about the seat belt issue.
Bob King | Duluth News Tribune

The original idea came from a student named Hunter Kuehnow, decked out for Simonson's visit in a black corduroy sport coat and red tie (clip-on, he admitted), and black-rimmed glasses.

He slowly read a few sentences from the letter. "We should have seat belts so we can stay safe on the bus. If we get in a crash, we don't want to hit our heads on the seats."

When he was a kindergartner, Kuehnow said, he got hurt when a friend was messing around with him on the bus, and he got stitches in the back of his head.

Despite that injury, school buses are already "incredibly safe," Simonson told Kuehnow and his classmates.

"To be clear, and to be fair, school buses are the safest way to get kids from point A to point B, without a doubt," he said.

School buses are seven times safer than passenger cars, according to the National Highway Transportation Safety Board. They're heavy, high off the ground, and bright yellow so other drivers can easily spot them. And the rubberized seats, placed close together, are designed to protect kids in the event of a crash.

School buses transport more than 23 million kids back and forth to school. Yet on average, only six die in bus crashes every year.

"But we have an opportunity here to make them even safer, I think," Simonson told the kids.

Third graders Kiara Cahoon, left, and Hailey Osborne listen.
Third graders Kiara Cahoon, left, and Hailey Osborne listen as Simonson answers questions about seat belts and school buses.
Bob King | Duluth News Tribune

Then the senator opened it up for questions. And immediately a third-grade student cut right to the chase. "How are you going to pay for this?" he asked.

"Huh. Excellent question," Simonson said. "If there's one argument that could be made against seat belts, it's the cost of the seat belts. And I understand that. And we'll try to figure out a way around this."

It costs between $8,000 and $10,000 to equip a bus with seat belts, according to industry officials. With about 12,500 buses in Minnesota, that adds up to between $100 and $125 million.

The price tag is a big part of the reason why similar legislation has failed to pass three times in Minnesota since 2011. Currently only six states require seat belts in school buses.

While everyone acknowledges that seat belts save lives, there are also other concerns with installing them in school buses.

Groups that represent bus operators and companies worry that drivers will be required to make sure kids wear the seat belts. And if there is an accident, they say, it could be difficult to free kids from their belts to leave the bus.

But momentum may be shifting in favor of the idea. Minnesota is one of 17 states where school bus seat belt bills have been introduced this year, according to Amanda Essex with the National Conference of State Legislatures.

"Some states have pointed to the fatal crash in Tennessee in November of last year," she said, in which six grade school students died. The accident received a huge amount of national attention.

Sen. Erik Simonson speaks to the third graders at Laura MacArthur Elem.
Simonson speaks to the third graders at Laura MacArthur Elementary about the campaign to have seatbelts installed on school buses Monday at the school.
Bob King | Duluth News Tribune

"I think that has maybe spurred this to the top of the mind for some legislators," she said.

Also, about a year and a half ago, the administrator for the National Highway Transportation Safety Board for the first time came out in favor of seat belts on school buses, although the board has declined to mandate them.

Then the National Safety Council followed with its own recommendation that seat belts should be installed on new school buses, a move that Simonson said could give the bill a better chance in the Legislature this year.

But Derrick Agate, transportation director for the Hopkins school district, said requiring seat belts on new buses would put districts like his in an uncomfortable position because typically a district will buy only a handful of new buses every year. It could take 10 years to replace the entire fleet.

"How do you tell one set of parents that, yes, we're having new buses in, but we're going to be using it in this neighborhood, as opposed to this neighborhood?" he said.

Agate, who's also president of the Minnesota Association of Pupil Transportation, doesn't oppose seat belts. But he said any bill should also include money for school districts to pay for them.

And that leads to another tough question posed by a Duluth third-grader to state senator Erik Simonson. "What happens if the bill doesn't pass?"

"That's a really good question, and a really strong possibility," Simonson conceded.

He told the class if it doesn't pass, he'll keep trying, every year, until it does.

Whatever happens, Glomski said her students won't forget that they spoke up and got the Capitol's attention.

"It's just been awesome for these kids," she said. "Even though they're just 8 and 9, we're all citizens, and all of our voices matter. Now they have this initial dipping their toes in civic engagement. It's pretty cool."