Local lawmakers favor push for mandatory seat belts on school buses [photos, interactive]

photo State Rep. JoAnne Favors gathers campaign signs on her way out Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2016, Jefferson's.
photo House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, has said he will give up his leadership post to, in part, devote more time to his business interests.

NASHVILLE - Two Hamilton County lawmakers said Tuesday they will introduce legislation requiring all Tennessee school buses to be equipped with seat belts in the wake of Monday's deadly crash.

Rep. Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, and Rep. JoAnne Favors, D-Chattanooga, said the legislation is needed in a state that has no such requirement.

McCormick said his intent is to require all current and new buses to be retrofitted for three-point seat belts.

States with mandatory school seat belt laws include California, Florida, Louisiana, New Jersey and New York. Texas requires seat belts on school buses purchased after 2010.

"It's time to have that conversation" about Tennessee school bus safety, including seat belt requirements, Gov. Bill Haslam said Tuesday.

"We had a wreck last year in Knoxville with a school bus, last week in Nashville, and obviously, the tragedy in Chattanooga," Haslam told. "I think it's time to have all the parties come to the table and have a thoughtful conversation about what can we do to make our school buses as safe as we can."

Tennessee's individual local school districts are in charge of buses and bus safety, either operating buses themselves or by contracting with individual drivers or companies.

Most buses don't have seat belts, and school authorities and operators have been resistant to changes in state law requiring them to do so, citing enormous expenses.

A bill requiring new buses to be equipped with seat belts languished in the 2015-2016 General Assembly despite the Knoxville school bus tragedy.

But McCormick said he believes a measure can pass during the new 110th General Assembly that starts Jan. 10.

"I don't want to point fingers who was against it because of the expenses," McCormick said. "I'm sure it will be expensive. But this is an area where the state should certainly step in and help with the expenses and not [make local systems] shoulder the entire burden."

The lawmaker added: "It's unfortunate it took a tragedy like this to focus attention on it, but sometimes that's what it takes to wake people up."

Favors, the House Democratic minority whip, said she would introduce legislation to require seat belts in school buses when the General Assembly reconvenes in January.

She, too, noted a school bus seat belt bill was proposed in response to a December 2014 Knoxville school bus crash that killed two students and a teacher's aide. The bill was shipped off for summer legislative study in 2015.

It went nowhere in 2016, despite being restricted to only purchases of new school buses and extending the implementation date.

A fiscal analysis on the bill estimated that requiring buses purchased after July 1, 2016, be equipped with safety restraint systems approved by the National Transportation Safety Board would cost the state $5.53 million a year, or $49.77 million through Fiscal Year 2024-2025.

Local districts' collective expenses would increase by $33.18 million a year or a total of $265.48 million from FY 2015/2016 through FY 2022-2023, according to Fiscal Review Committee analysts.

An investigation of the 2014 Knoxville crash revealed the bus driver was texting while driving when that accident occurred. Lawmakers did enact a law toughening sanctions on school bus drivers who text while driving.

McCormick said that with booming state surpluses during the last fiscal year, the state can afford a one-time expenditure for current bus fleets maintained by local school districts. And there should be money going forward as well to require new buses to have the safety features, he said.

"If you have the money, I can't think of a better place to put it for our children going to and from school," McCormick said.

He said he has reached out to other members of Hamilton County's legislative delegation and believes they'll be supportive.

McCormick said he can't say with certainty whether seat belts would have helped in the Chattanooga crash.

"I don't know. But sometimes you have to look at common sense," he said. "If the bus is rolling over, rather than having bodies flying, it would make better sense to have them strapped in. It's the same concept you have in a car. I think common sense tells us it would help more often than not."

Because the crash occurred in the Woodmore section of Favors' district, McCormick said he has reached out to the Chattanooga Democrat and offered to let her carry the bill and pledged to stand with her in pushing it through House committees.

The issue of school bus seat belts has long been debated at the state and national levels. Federal officials in years past have taken the position that bus seating provided adequate protection.

But last year, Dr. Mark Rosekind, administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, swung forcefully to the view that seat belts would help.

"The position of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is that seat belts save lives. That is true whether in a passenger car or in a big yellow bus," Rosekind told a conference in November 2015. "And saving lives is what we are about.

"So NHTSA's policy is that every child on every school bus should have a three-point seat belt," he added. "NHTSA will seek to use all the tools at our disposal to help achieve that goal, and today I want to launch a nationwide effort to get us there."

Favors, meanwhile, said the entire Chattanooga community is in "a state of shock after this horrific accident."

She said she rushed to the scene Monday afternoon after Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger called to inform her of the crash. She praised the response by police officers, emergency teams, Interim Superintendent Dr. Kirk Kelly, school workers and clergy.

"It is difficult to put into words how heartbreaking the scene was," Favors said.

Favors added: "The children who were on the bus and their classmates will have a long and difficult road to understand and comprehend this loss of life.

"We ask for prayers for the victims, their loved ones, and all the residents of our tight-knit community. I know that we will respond as we always do when terrible things happen in Chattanooga: with love, compassion and caring."

Contact staff writer Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com.

Woodmore Elementary school bus crash