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Senator will push again for seat belts in Nebraska school buses
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Senator will push again for seat belts in Nebraska school buses

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An Omaha lawmaker plans to keep pushing to require seat belts in all Nebraska school buses.

State Sen. Robert Hilkemann says he already intended to introduce a bill next year before a school bus carrying 35 elementary students Monday slammed into a tree in Chattanooga, Tennessee, killing a half-dozen children and injuring at least two dozen more.

Nebraska lawmakers will consider Hilkemann's bill once they convene in January.

"It's not a matter of if there will be another tragic school bus accident, but when," he said in a news release Tuesday.

Lawmakers have tried four times since 2001 to pass bills adding seat belts to school buses. That year, a Seward bus carrying high school band members plunged from a bridge on West Dodge Road in Omaha and crashed into West Papillion Creek, killing three students and a parent.

None of those proposals was successful.

"The Legislature has failed to prioritize the increased need for the safety of students traveling on school buses," said Hilkemann, who sponsored the most recent attempt, in 2015.

That bill, LB373, failed to advance from the Legislature's Transportation and Telecommunications Committee on a split vote.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has since come out in favor of requiring seat belts on school buses. The federal agency's previous suggestion that buses were safe without them had been cited by school districts across the country as a reason to avoid spending money to retrofit buses, at a cost of several thousand dollars per bus.

Six states require seat belts in school buses: California, Florida, Louisiana, New Jersey, New York and Texas.

School transportation officials in Nebraska have questioned whether adding seat belts would make school buses safer, even suggesting they could make matters worse in some crashes.

Bellevue Public Schools transportation director Rich Casey told lawmakers last year that seat belts could get in the way if students need to evacuate a bus quickly, like when a bus is on fire or stuck at a railroad crossing.

Casey also questioned the potential cost of adding seat belts and the added responsibility for drivers to make sure dozens of students are properly buckled.

"I would like to assure you that if there is a safer way of transporting students on school buses, I'd be first in line to promote and enforce it. However, I don't think the lap/shoulder belts is that answer."

Reach the writer at 402-473-7234 or zpluhacek@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @zachami.

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