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Utah law now requires seat belts in cars and trucks — but not school buses. Lawmakers advance bill to change that.

(Santiago Flores | AP file photo, South Bend Tribune) Indiana State Police investigate a collision between an East Pulaski school bus and truck on Wednesday, Dec. 5, 2018, in Argos, Ind. Utah lawmakers are advancing a bill to require seatbelts on school buses.

Concern about safety barely outweighed worry about cost as a House committee on Friday advanced a bill to require seat belts on new school buses in Utah. Older buses would not be required to add them.

The House Transportation Committee voted 7-4 to send HB168 to the full House. A similar bill was defeated there in 2017 on a 30-40 vote, when members argued school districts could not afford it without cutting other important programs.

The new bill’s sponsor, Rep. Craig Hall, R-West Valley City, said a main change since the older bill was killed is that the National Transportation Safety Board has now called for seat belts on school buses.

“It is silly and interesting that we require by law all children and all adults in our own personal vehicles to wear seat belts … but for some reason we find it perfectly acceptable to put kids in buses with no seat belts,” Hall said.

He notes that buses are designed with high cushioned seats to prevent severe injury in front- or rear-end collisions without seat belts, but offer no such protection in case of side hits or rollovers. He showed videos of children tossed off ceilings and piled on each other in such wrecks.

He said eight states have laws requiring school bus seat belts, and many districts nationally mandate them — usually after a deadly accident locally led parents to demand them.

Main objections are that it will be too expensive for school districts, or that seat belts might be more dangerous to small children who may panic and not release belts in wrecks involving fire or submersion in water.

“I really worry about unfunded mandates to our school districts,” said Rep. Marsha Judkins, R-Provo, a former Provo School Board member. “Transportation funding is very squeezed and very pressured, and even finding school bus drivers is very difficult. So I really worry about the funding.”

A fiscal note on the bill estimates that, while it would cost the state nothing, the change would require school districts to spend $12,000 extra per new bus purchased, for an aggregate expense of $2 million annually.

But Rep. Adam Robertson, R-Provo, argued, “We do routinely mandate safety features on transportation.”

Hall added, “We mandate that school buses have four tires. We mandate that school buses have blinkers…. Those are unfunded mandates. Putting a seat belt on a school bus is no different than any of those examples.”

He said studies also show wearing seat belts is far safer than not wearing them.

“This is the right step to take,” said Rep. Ray Ward, R-Bountiful, a physician.

Four Republicans joined the committee’s three Democrats to advance the bill. All four no votes came from Republicans.

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