NASHVILLE — Spurred by last November's deadly Woodmore Elementary School bus crash, local lawmakers this year pushed a bill in the Tennessee General Assembly that would require buses come equipped with lap-shoulder seat belts, only to see the measure stall.
But Rep. JoAnne Favors, D- Chattanooga, and Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, said they will renew the effort in 2018 in hopes of getting something through despite opposition from some school districts, bus owners and a number of mostly rural lawmakers.
"I think we're going to have more support than was anticipated," said Favors, whose House District 28 includes both Woodmore and the bus crash site in Brainerd. "I still feel very good about it."
Gardenhire added: "I think some form will pass. It won't be the form we brought out last year. It'll just be too expensive."
Rather, the senator said, he's leaning on legislation that would give local districts options as buses reach the state's mandatory 18-year limit on use.
Lingering safety concerns from a fatal 2014 Knoxville bus crash reignited after the Woodmore crash Nov. 21, 2016.
The Favors-Gardenhire bill sought to require three-point, lap-and-shoulder safety harnesses on all public school buses by mid-2023. But legislative analysts estimated the bill would cost the state $58.7 million and local governments $423.4 million to replace all buses, because they couldn't be retrofitted.
Opponents cited the costs but also argued that school buses, because of their special seat compartmentalization, are considered among the safest vehicles on the road. And they contended disruptive students wouldn't use the safety harnesses or would use them to hit each other.
"Who's the monitor, who's the [school resource officer] to help these children out of their seat belt?" asked House Transportation Subcommittee Chairwoman Terri Lynn Weaver during an April hearing. She also fretted about young children trapped in buses that catch fire.
While "every life is priceless," she said, the bill "is based on emotion, and any kind of legislation that is based on emotion is usually not good policy."
But it received a boost from Erlanger physicians who treated some of the children hurt in the crash.
As Woodmore families and some of the children watched, the physicians described the injuries in graphic detail to lawmakers. The physicians believed restraints would have kept most children in their seats, lessening the carnage.
As the bill began moving, Favors tackled the cost problem.
The implementation deadline disappeared, and the bill only requires that new buses carry safety belt systems recommended by the National Transportation Safety Board, which says restraints improve children's safety.
The NTSB investigated the Chattanooga crash and is expected to issue a report.
The amended Favors-Gardenhire bill, which several Knox County lawmakers signed onto, would send an estimated $2.15 million a year to local systems. Statewide, those systems would see their costs increase by $12.9 million a year.
Favors got the bill through four separate committees and subcommittees before putting it on hold in the House Finance Subcommittee. It's still there, and in the Senate Finance committee. The two lawmakers can try to move it next year if they believe they have the votes.
Gov. Bill Haslam had a much easier path for his own legislation to help prevent future school bus tragedies.
The new law he backed requires public school districts and public charter schools to appoint transportation supervisors with clear lines of accountability on addressing problems and parent and citizen complaints. Those were issues in Hamilton County.
The legal age to drive a bus rose from 21 to 25. And would-be drivers must complete a course devised by the Tennessee Department of Education and the Department of Safety and Homeland Security.
Education spokeswoman Sara Gast said Tammy Knipp was appointed to state director of transportation and is leading an advisory body that is assessing needs, establishing driver training standards and identifying best practices in transportation management.
Haslam did not support the Favors-Gardenhire safety restraint system bill, although he eventually told the Times Free Press that if it passed he would find money to fund it. Whether that offer is in effect in 2018 remains to be seen.
"There continues to be debate over mandating seat belts on school buses, and it's an issue we will continue to discuss with the General Assembly," Haslam press secretary Jennifer Donnals said in an email. "With that said, working with the Legislature, we were able to pass legislation earlier this year that creates more oversight and training around school transportation, which we are confident will enhance student safety."
not wearing them. A truck then T-boned the bus.
During the struggle, Favors, Gardenhire and the several Hamilton County and Knox County lawmakers who signed onto the bill picked up a corporate ally — Indiana-based IMMI, which manufactures SafeGuard seats for school buses.
The seats have three-point lap-shoulder seat belts, the type of restraint system recommended by federal officials.
This summer, Favors and Gardenhire watched an IMMI demonstration. A bus was loaded with crash-test dummies, some wearing safety harnesses and others
"The first thing I learned was that without some kind of restraints on, the kids and adults just fly all over the place when there is an impact of the vehicle," Gardenhire said.
He also noticed the constraints "cut down drastically" on misbehavior.
"It let the bus driver focus on driving and not maintain a lot of discipline," he said.
Earlier this year, IMMI hired Nashville-based CivicPoint LLC to lobby in support of the bill.
"Tennessee parents know their children are safer in seat belts," said attorney Tom Lee, a managing partner at Civic- Point. " That's why the conversation has changed dramatically. That's why the General Assembly's Education and Transportation committees have approved the bill. And that's why it's going to pass in 2018."
As for the argument about belted students being unable safely to exit a burning bus, Lee said, "First, kids know how to undo seat belts. They've been doing it since they were toddlers. Second, what takes time getting off a bus is not unfastening a seat belt, it's the line out the door.
"Most important," Lee added, "in the hundreds of thousands of miles already ridden by students in seat belts, not one student ever has been hurt in a school bus fire because they couldn't get out of their seat."
Contact staff writer Andy Sher at firstname.lastname@example.org or 615-255-0550. Follow him on Twitter @AndySher1.