Tennessee bill requiring seat belts on all public school buses moves forward

(Photo: WKRN)

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) – A Tennessee House Bill that would require seat belts on all public school buses purchased after July 1, 2018, and on all buses by 2023, moved forward Tuesday.

The House Transportation committee decided 9 to 7 to move the bill out of the Transportation Committee and on to the Education Administration and Planning Committee.

A Senate version of the same bill is on the Senate Education Committee agenda for Wednesday.

The bill comes after the deadly school bus crash in Chattanooga last November. Six elementary students were killed and 12 others were hurt.

Canasia Williams was one of the children injured.

“It might happen again. You never know,” she said. “I broke my wrist and I had two concussions.”

Williams traveled to the hearing with her grandmother, who has worked to organize families impacted by the crash.

“Seat belts could save those babies’ lives,” Selbrea Rhodes said. “Six children are not coming home to their mothers and I think it is ridiculous because seat belts can save.”

She continued, “My three-year-old grandson knows how to put on and take off his seat belt. There is no way you can’t train a child to keep his seat belt on at all times.”

Transportation Committee members questioned the cost of the seat belt requirement and the ability for small children to take the seat belts off in an emergency situation.

The implementation is expected to cost the state $11.7 million and about $70.5 million at the local level.

Republican Representative Terri Lynn Weaver, who represents Smith, Trousdale, Dekalb and Sumner counties wanted to hold the bill through the summer to study whether it would be effective.

“We have a couple of more months of school, the summer and a couple of months in the fall where we can learn more,” she said. “I have a young grandson who had trouble unbuckling his seat belt in the back of my Yukon when we went to get ice the other day. He said I can’t get it undone.”

Others wanted to study whether the requirement should be left up to individual counties instead of a statewide mandate.

Democratic Representative Bo Mitchell said holding the bill over the summer without taking action would be a mistake.

“The time to act is now,” he said. “We cannot keep putting this off.”

Democratic Representative JoAnne Favors, representing Chattanooga, sponsored the House version of the bill.

She grew emotional after the committee voted to approve the measure.

“I am so happy and I thank the committee members including the chairman,” Rep. Favors said. “It really lets us know those lives were not lost in vain.”

Johnthony Walker, 24, is charged with six counts of vehicular homicide, reckless endangerment and reckless driving in connection with the deadly school bus crash.

Several families are suing Walker and his employer Durham School Services.

The company announced in December a set of safety initiatives including:

  • Install a secure nationwide cloud-based complaint management system that will directly connect Durham with the more than 200 schools it serves. Through this system, teachers and administrators will be able to quickly and directly report issues or concerns they have with individual buses or drivers, enabling Durham to more quickly take corrective action. The system bolsters existing platforms, and is expected to be in place at all Durham-serviced schools by the end of 2017. It will be installed in Chattanooga this month.
  • Equip its entire fleet of buses with DriveCam “smart cameras” that will activate and record both the driver and the road each time they sense unusual driving. This will give Durham a record of what happened so it can be promptly addressed with the driver. Durham has already equipped about 1,000 buses with these cameras, and intends to have the entire fleet equipped in the next two years. Chattanooga buses will be equipped during the 2016 holiday recess.
  • Appoint a Chief Safety Data and Compliance Officer by the end of the first quarter of next year. With more data available to Durham than ever, the company will have a dedicated leader and team who will work with the company’s Senior Vice President of Safety to continuously review all that data to identify potential issues and take corrective action.

According to Durham’s website, all three initiatives were planned before the Chattanooga crash but the wreck lead to a sooner roll out of the safety initiatives.