House rejects plan to require seat belts on new school buses

(Santiago Flores | AP file photo via South Bend Tribune) In this Dec. 5, 2018, file photo, Indiana State Police investigate a collision between an East Pulaski school bus and truck in Argos, Ind.

Utah House members voted down a bill to require seat belts on new school buses in Utah, saying it would tie the hands of schools that may have more pressing needs for the money.

HB168 went down on a 23-50 vote Thursday. In 2017, the House voted 30-40 to kill a similar bill.

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

“We put a criminal penalty on individuals if they don’t buckle up, if they don’t buckle up their kids,” he said. “But we put 50 kids on the bus without seat belts.”

Buses are designed with high cushioned seats to prevent severe injury in front- or rear-end collisions without seat belts, Hall said, but they offer no such protection in case of side hits or rollovers. In such crashes, kids “are thrown around like clothes in a clothes dryer,” he said.

Rep. Timothy Hawkes, R-Centerville, said the federal government has not imposed a mandate for seat belts on school buses, and the state should not either.

“We can’t afford to chase every rabbit or to spend money on anything that might conceivably help because it means taking money away from something else,” including perhaps offering more buses and routes to transport more safely children who walk to school.

“The local districts don’t need a bill to do this,” said Rep. Ken Ivory, R-West Jordan. “If we’re going to mandate, let’s fund it.”

Similarly, Rep. Marsha Judkins, R-Provo, a former Provo School Board member, said if the Legislature requires seat belts, “then the Legislature needs to be willing to provide the funds to do that.”

“We have unfunded mandates all the time, even with school buses,” Hall responded. “We require that school buses have brakes” without paying for that.

Rep. Val Potter said, “I can’t think of something that would help school safety more than putting seat belts on a bus.”

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