California Gov. Gray Davis signed legislation requiring safety lap belts and shoulder harnesses on all new school buses starting in 2002, but giving California an emergency exit if the federal government prohibits such restraints.

The bill’s signing capped a tenacious campaign by Assemblyman Martin Gallegos (D-Baldwin Park) to provide an extra measure of safety for more than 1 million California children who ride the vehicles to and from school. Although New York and New Jersey long have required safety belts on school buses, Gallegos said the new law puts California “light years ahead of other states.”

Effective Jan. 1, 2002, every new school bus purchased or leased for use in California must be equipped with a combination of lap and shoulder belts for each passenger. Buses transporting elementary students would receive first priority.

Aware that the federal government is studying how to make young passengers safer in school buses, Gallegos included an exit clause in the legislation that would prohibit the installation of lap and shoulder belts if the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration specifically forbids them.

The federal agency has been studying seat belts and other restraining mechanisms for school buses and is expected to issue its findings next summer.

In September, the National Transportation Safety Board, a related agency, announced its own study and recommended against the lap and shoulder belts. Among other things, it found that bus seats were too slippery and flat for belt restraints to be effective.