SALT LAKE CITY — Once again, a Utah lawmaker is pushing to require school districts to phase in school buses with seat belts in an effort to end what he calls the "silly" absence of common-sense safety for school children.
Rep. Craig Hall, R-West Valley City, is making another attempt to require new buses to be equipped with seat belts after a previous bill failed in the House two years ago — and Friday his bill, HB168, cleared its first hurdle when it won approval from a House committee.
Hall said Utah has been "very fortunate" not to have any serious school bus crashes yet — but that's likely one of the reasons why the state doesn't yet require seat belts, he said. He noted that when he lived in Texas, his boss' daughter was seriously injured in a crash and two of her soccer teammates were killed.
"A week later, guess what happened?" Hall said.
The school district put seat belts in its buses.
"I guarantee if that same thing happened here in Utah — if the hometown football team had an accident on the school bus and a couple of kids died — a month later, there would be seat belts on the school bus," Hall said.
Hall said states across the U.S. are moving toward requiring seat belts, so it's only a matter of time before Utah will, too, or it will be required on the federal level.
"This is going to happen," Hall said. "It's silly and interesting that we require by law all children and all adults in our own personal vehicles to wear seatbelts. … But for some reason, we find it perfectly acceptable to put kids in buses with no seat belts at all."
Two years ago, Hall's bill was struck down by a 30-40 vote in the House amid cost concerns and calls for data proving seat bills actually increase kids' safety — but this year Hall is trying again, now able to cite national data indicating seat belts do indeed keep children safer.
"Now we have terrific data," Hall said, pointing to a 2018 recommendation from the National Transportation Safety Board that all new school buses across the country be equipped with lap and shoulder seat belts.
Hall also showed the House Transportation Committee videos of the dangers to children in school bus crashes without seat belts, especially in rollover crashes. He said schoolchildren are tossed around "like clothes in a dryer" and are at a much higher risk of serious injury or death when they don't wear a seat belt.
But what worried lawmakers most was the price tag.
Requiring school districts to include seat belts in their new bus purchases may cost an additional $12,000 per bus, or an estimated yearly cost of about $2 million for an average of 180 buses replaced annually, fiscal analysts estimated.
Hall said it also costs about twice as much more to retrofit a school bus to include seat belts than it does to buy a new bus, which is why his bill only requires school districts to phase in the seat belts over time. However, the bill doesn't include an appropriation to help school districts offset the cost.
Rep. Marsha Judkins, R-Provo, voted against the bill, saying she "really worries" about "unfunded mandates to our school districts."
"I want our schoolchildren to be safe," Judkins said. "But I know that transportation funding is very squeezed … and even finding school bus drivers is very difficult, so I really worry about funding for this bill."
Rep. Merrill Nelson, R-Grantsville, said it's "hard to disagree" that seat belts are needed, but he said he'd rather allow school districts to take the lead in phasing in seat belts rather than requiring them to do so.7 comments on this story
"I'd rather see that happen in a natural way as funds are available over time rather than mandating it from the state down," Nelson said.
But Hall said the Utah Legislature hands down unfunded mandates "all the time."
"We mandate school buses have four tires. We mandate school buses have blinkers. We mandate school buses have emergency doors," Hall said. "Putting a seat belt on the school bus is no different than any of those."
Rep. Ray Ward, R-Bountiful, sided with Hall.
"The time has come," he said.
The bill now goes to the House floor.