Deadly Crash Spurs Tennessee School Bus Safety Bills

By SHEILA BURKE and ERIK SCHELZIG | April 20, 2017

In the first legislative session after a school bus wreck in Chattanooga killed six children, Tennessee lawmakers are advancing bills to improve safety, including one measure that would require seatbelts on new buses.

On Tuesday, a House committee advanced the seat belt measure, despite cost concerns and some worries that restrained schoolchildren would be trapped if their bus catches fire or plunges under water.

Rep. Joanne Favors, D-Chattanooga, said her bill would cost districts across the state an estimated total of $70 million a year. Favors, who represents the school district where the bus accident happened, has brought the costs down by making her measure apply only to buses purchased after July 2019.

Favors said she can reduce the cost even more, and vowed to keep fighting. But she faces skepticism.

“I don’t think this is a good piece of legislation,” Rep. Terri Lynn Weaver, R-Lancaster,” told Favors during the House Education Administration and Planning Committee meeting. “I think it is based on emotion and any kind of legislation that is based on emotion is usually not good policy.”

Lawmakers moved the bill forward nevertheless.

A separate bill won unanimous House passage Monday evening. Proposed by Gov. Bill Haslam, it would require more oversight of drivers. The 24-year-old school bus driver in the Chattanooga crash in November was speeding with 37 schoolchildren on board and had a wreck involving property damage two months earlier, authorities said.

That bill, which awaits Senate passage, would require each school district to have a supervisor who oversees school bus transportation, and require drivers to be at least 25 and go through training.

Haslam appeared to suggest that the seat belt requirement might have a difficult time passing.

“If they pass it we’ll sign it and figure out a way to fund it. But we’re not actively engaged in that one,” Haslam said. The proposal we made was the proposal that we obviously wanted to make certain would happen.”

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