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Balking at 'unfunded mandate,' Utah House shoots down bill requiring seat belts on school buses

Only eight states in America require buses to have seatbelts.
Yet again, Utah lawmakers have shot down a bill to require school districts to phase in buses with seat belts.
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SALT LAKE CITY — Yet again, Utah lawmakers have shot down a bill to require school districts to phase in buses with seat belts.

Just as it did two years ago, the Utah House of Representatives on Tuesday voted down the school bus seat belt bill, the second attempt by Rep. Craig Hall, R-West Valley City, to end a practice he argues puts Utah's schoolchildren at risk.

But a majority of Hall's colleagues in the House balked at passing an unfunded mandate down on local school districts — and some still argued seat belts in some cases decrease safety for children on school buses.

"We don't need a bill to do this," argued Rep. Ken Ivory, R-West Jordan. "The local districts don't need a bill to do this."

The bill faltered with a 23-50 vote.

That's despite Hall's insistence that unlike when the House considered a similar bill in 2017, this year there's data that shows seat belts do indeed keep children safer on buses as well as a recommendation from the National Transportation Safety Board that all new school buses across the country be equipped with lap and shoulder seat belts.

"Now we have the data," Hall said. "The numbers are there."

Ivory, and Reps. Merrill Nelson, R-Grantsville, and Derrin Owens, R-Fountain Green, argued seat belts could in some circumstances restrict children from escaping danger such as in a fire or flood.

Owens described a video of a crash between a truck and school bus that showed students sliding down under the seats in front of them rather than staying upright when parts of the bus "disintegrated."

"Had those students been strapped up ... there would have been many more injuries," Owens said.

To avoid an "unfunded mandate" on local school districts, Rep. Marsha Judkins, R-Provo, unsuccessfully attempted to change the bill to change its language to say school districts "may" rather than "shall" phase in new school buses with seat belts, as well as appropriate $2 million from the education fund to pay for them, but the amendment narrowly failed on a 34-35 vote.

Hall argued against the change, saying it "completely guts the bill."

Regardless, the original bill still failed. There's a possibility it could be resurrected, but as it stands now the bill has hit a dead end.