Tennessee school bus seat belt bill faces more concerns than just cost

(Photo: WKRN)

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) – Within hours after the deadly Chattanooga school bus accident last fall that killed six young students, there were calls to make every school bus statewide have seat belts.

The biggest obstacle has always been money, but lawmakers discovered it’s more complicated than that. Would lawmakers find funds to outfit the school buses or would they lean on local districts to come up with the funds?

Lawmakers were also hearing privately, and sometimes publicly, from the school bus drivers themselves.

Before the legislative session finished last week, two veteran bus drivers, who have nearly a half-century of experience between them, spoke on camera anonymously to News 2.

One of them who has more than 30 years of experience worried about something that is rarely brought up in the school bus seat belt debate.

“The kids would take the belt buckle and wack other kids on the head, causing head injuries,” one of the drivers told News 2.

The second driver’s concern went to a potentially more serious issue for a school bus.

“If it catches fire, there is little or no chance to get 90 students off a bus,” the second driver explained. “I would have to cut them out of seat belts. Children panic. Adults panic as well. I just think it’s a serious fire hazard.”

The drivers think an extra person, a monitor, is the first thing to do rather than seat belts for school bus safety.

“I am fine with someone looking over my shoulder and helping me out,” said the second school bus driver. “We need monitors terribly.”

Those words were echoed by the fellow driver, who said, “We need monitors on those buses while we watch traffic and drive the bus.”

The two drivers were among the dozens with school buses bringing children to the state capitol building as the Tennessee General Assembly wrapped up its work for the year.

One of the parents supervising the trip was Betty Proctor-Bjorgo, who was asked about both seat belts and monitors on the buses.

“Anything that will keep our kids safer is a very good idea,” she told News 2.

Proctor-Bjorgo, who said she has two kids riding school buses, dismissed concerns about the cost.

“I know there are ways to raise money as well,” she added.

Parents like her have been heard to ask always ask, “How do you put a price tag on your child’s safety?”

It’s a question for lawmakers and school districts across Tennessee.

As for the seat belt bill that heard a lot of testimony and debate, it’s still alive in committees and will be considered next January when lawmakers return.

“It’s already made it most of the way through the committee and now we need to deal with financial issues,” said Rep. Gerald McCormick of Chattanooga. “We ran out of time to get it done this year.”

Some estimates of outfitting school buses with seat belts have run up to at least $15,000.

Having monitors properly trained to keep an eye on things while drivers watch the road could run up to $25,000 in salary for each monitor on a bus, according to one Middle Tennessee school district.

Click here for complete coverage of the Chattanooga bus crash.