Coach seatbelt law takes effect next year in California

SACRAMENTO – California’s new bus seatbelt law should have little effect on motorcoach drivers and operators as long as they announce seatbelt advisories at the beginning of trips, said a liaison for the California Bus Association.

Senate Bill 20, signed recently by Gov. Jerry Brown, will require commercial bus drivers and passengers to wear safety belts while traveling in California if the vehicle is equipped with belts.

The law is effective July 18, 2018.

Fines of $20 for a first violation and $50 for subsequent violations are authorized. A “parent, legal guardian or chartering party” is responsible for violations committed by passengers under the age of 16.

The California association worked with the bill’s author, Sen. Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, to make sure drivers were not saddled with seatbelt policing, said Dan Eisentraeger, a retired motorcoach operator based in Sacramento.

“We have worked with Hill very well in the past on these issues,” Eisentraeger said. “The California Bus Association wanted to make sure that the driver is not considered the enforcement on the vehicle. The driver is responsible for the equipment, making sure that the bus has proper seatbelts and that they work, and that the bus is operating properly.

“That is why we said to the senator, ‘Don’t put the responsibility on the bus company or driver to mandate or enforce that people wear their seatbelts.’”

SB 20 states that passengers who are 16 years of age or older must be properly restrained by a safety belt. “A parent, legal guardian or chartering party” shall not allow children 8 to 15 years old to be transported on a bus unless they are properly restrained.

Children who are under 8 and under 4-feet, 9-inches tall must be restrained “in an appropriate child passenger restraint system.” A parent, legal guardian or chartering party may hold a child who is under 2 years old.

The law “does not apply to a passenger that is leaving, has left, or is returning from his or her seat to use an onboard bathroom,” the law states.

California legislators have focused on bus and motorcoach safety following recent accidents that were fatal to unrestrained passengers, Eisentraeger said.

“A lot of us have been putting lap and three-point belts on our buses for the last 10 to 12 years since we could get them from the manufacturers,” he said. “Sen. Hill decided that since a school bus seatbelt law passed the previous year, the rules should be reflected in the charter buses and intercity coaches as well.”

The new law states: “A charter-party carrier of passengers engaged in charter bus transportation shall ensure that the driver of a vehicle that is designed to carry 39 or more passengers shall instruct or play a video for all passengers on the safety equipment and emergency exits on the vehicle prior to the beginning of any trip and provide each passenger with written or video instructions that include, at a minimum, a demonstration of the location and operation of all exits, including emergency exits, the requirement to wear a seatbelt, if available, and that not wearing a seatbelt is punishable by a fine.”

A previously adopted state law mandates the seatbelt announcement on trips carrying students, Eisentraeger said.

“We are more than glad to make an announcement because we are already doing that with school pupils.”

He said he assumes that carriers who have been investing in seatbelts for years have been encouraging passengers to use them. There also should be no issue regarding seatbelt use by drivers.

“The companies I have been experienced with through my career have been very hard on the fact that we would let drivers go if we saw them without their seatbelt on,” Eisentraeger said.

But he questions the California Highway Patrol’s ability to spot infractions and issue citations.

“To be honest with you, I don’t know how the highway patrol could ever enforce it. There is no way a highway patrolman going down the road is going to see if any people don’t have their seatbelts on in that vehicle,” Eisentraeger said. “The person who is going to see that is the chaperone, the chartering party or a teacher who is checking on the passengers.”

Compliance with the announcement mandate may be challenging for intercity carriers, he said.

“They are going to have to talk to their drivers and make a safety announcement or play the video at each one of their pickup points, which I don’t think is happening right now.”

Even if enforcement and ticketing are spotty, the law could factor into liability lawsuits following accidents, he said.

“Where it is going to come up is when there is a bad accident and the question will be, ‘Did the driver put on the video or inform you how to use your seatbelt and tell you it is a state law?’ I guarantee if a carrier is involved in an accident in California and they have seatbelts on their buses, plaintiffs’ attorneys are going to find out if you were giving this instruction, Eisentraeger said.

“If you weren’t, they are going to ask why. It is going to be a strike against you.”

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