October 30, 2013 9:54:45 AM
JACKSON -- Mississippi lawmakers in 2014 could debate whether to require seat belts in school buses, but it could be a tough fight.
The state budget is already stretched, and many lawmakers say they don't want to push more expenses onto local school districts.
Plus, some lawmakers have shown over the years that they don't like the government requiring seat belt use in private vehicles.
Advocates say seat belts could help reduce the severity of children's injuries in case of a school bus wreck. Katie Beth Simmons, a 14-year-old who attends East Rankin Academy, told a small group of lawmakers Tuesday at the Capitol that she was riding a school bus home one day last year and it had to stop suddenly.
"My face hit the seat in front of me," she said.
The teenager said her 4-year-old sister rides a school bus, and the younger children often stand up and hop around. She said seat belts would keep them safer in an accident.
However, critics say that even if school buses have seat belts, it would be difficult for bus drivers to make sure all children are buckled up. House Transportation Committee Chairman Robert Johnson, D-Natchez, said there's also a concern that children could hit each other with the buckles, or that seat belts designed for larger children wouldn't hold smaller ones in place.
Rep. Johnny Stringer, D-Montrose, said Tuesday that he checked with the state Department of Education: Mississippi had 184 school bus accidents last year, none of them fatal.
Lawmakers estimated that installing seat belts in existing school buses could cost about $7,000 to $10,000 per bus. Stringer suggested the state could save money by training prisoners to do the installation.
Rep. Tom Miles, D-Forest, said he knows state money is limited. But, he asked his colleagues: "What is the value of a child's life?"
Mississippi's current seat belt law applies only to vehicles designed to carry 15 or fewer passengers. It requires seat belt use by all people in the front seat and by any child up to 7 years old. A violation of the law is a misdemeanor with a $25 fine.
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