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Utah transportation officials always stress that the most important safety step motorists can take is to buckle up. But many school buses in the state lack seat belts.

So the House Transportation Committee voted 7-3 Thursday to advance HB132 to require seat belts in any new buses purchased for schools in the state. It now goes to the full House.

Lawmakers also say some fortunate timing might help school districts to afford the $10,000 or so in estimated higher costs for each such bus.

Rep. Craig Hall, R-West Valley City, sponsor of the bill, noted the state has $32 million coming through a settlement from Volkswagen for emissions violations — and the state is looking at spending $20 million or so of that settlement to replace older, dirty diesel school buses to improve air quality.

Hall said that could both reduce pollution and add seat belts — if his bill passes into law.

"We may have a once-in-a-generation opportunity with this Volkswagen settlement," he said. "The time is right to make this happen economically."

Rep. Mike Kennedy, R-Alpine, was among three lawmakers who opposed the bill, saying it would create unfunded mandates. He said his local Alpine School District opposes it because of extra costs it would create without providing funding.

But Hall said the state also requires brake lights, headlights and inflated tires, and said they are mandates as much as seat belts.

Hall noted that parents now are subject to fine if their children are not buckled up in their cars. "Yet we put them in school buses without seat belts for some reason."

Committee Chairman Kay Christofferson said, "It's too bad that schools haven't done this on their own."

Hall said he is interested in the issue because he lived in Beaumont, Texas, in 2006, when the local high school girls soccer team was in a bus rollover. Two girls were killed, and 20 injured — many seriously. Seat belts likely would have prevented the injuries and deaths, he said.

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