New school bus seat belt law passes Tennessee transportation committee

A wrecker removes the bus from the scene at Talley Road in Chattanooga on Nov. 22, 2016, the day after the fatal Woodmore Elementary School bus crash.

NASHVILLE - State Rep. JoAnne Favors' bill requiring Tennessee school buses to be equipped with seat belts narrowly passed a House panel Tuesday amid concerns over costs and other factors.

An amended version of the bill, introduced by the Chattanooga Democrat after last year's deadly Woodmore Elementary School bus crash on Nov. 21 that killed six children, narrowly passed the Transportation Committee on a 9-7 vote.

photo 5th grader Canasia Williams, who survived last year's deadly Woodmore Elementary School bus crash, hugs her grandmother, Selbrea Rhodes, Tuesday after mandatory bus seat-belt bill clears House panel.
photo Tennessee state Rep. JoAnne Favors visited the Times Free Press for a meeting with the editorial board at the newspaper's offices on Tuesday, Jan. 24, 2017, in Chattanooga.

It now goes to the Education Administration Planning Committee where, legislators say, the going may get tougher.

Favors, a retired nurse, told colleagues "there's plenty of scientific evidence to prove that restraints on school buses will minimize injuries and fatalities."

The lawmaker said she tried to address her original bill's "astronomical costs" to state government and local school systems. Changes push back the implementation mandate a year so that new school buses would have to come equipped with safety restraint systems beginning July 1, 2019.

And they delete the requirement that all buses must have the safety belts as of July 1, 2023. They also eliminate a seat belt retrofitting provision.

Legislative analysts' fiscal note on the original bill estimated a state cost of nearly $12 million a year over five years, with a $70 million per year cost over six years for school districts.

Favors' changes would increase state expenditures by $2.15 million a year going forward, with the money going to local schools. Local schools' cost would be $12.91 million annually going forward.

Legislative analysts estimate schools replace about 600 buses a year. There are an estimated 9,000 buses owned by districts or by their contractors.

Citing the bill's costs, Chairman Barry Doss, R-Lawrenceburg, suggested to Favors that she not proceed with the measure this year and "try to get funding next year."

But Rep. Bo Mitchell, D-Nashville, drew applause from Chattanooga parents, grandparents and Woodmore students when he pointed to the state's $1 billion budget surplus and said "we have an opportunity to do something for the safety of children today and not push it down the road again.

"We got a problem in front of us that we can solve here and now," Mitchell said. "And I think it's time for action."

Committee members discussed at length concerns about various issues raised by district-level education officials in areas including how many students will actually use the belts, what liability there is for drivers or districts when they don't and how young children or the driver would free students in instances of fires or a bus plunging into water.

A Department of Safety official said the number of school bus fatalities in Tennessee is fairly low - 10 students and one adult - over the past eight years. At the same time, he acknowledged there are few bus fires.

At least two lawmakers with reservations, including Doss, voted for Favors' bill.

Overcome by emotion, Favors, D-Chattanooga, thanked committee members and later engaged in a teary celebration in a hallway outside the committee room with Woodmore parents and several children who survived the crash.

Favors hugged Selbrea Rhodes of Chattanooga, whose granddaughter, Canasia Williams, was injured in the bus crash, saying she was "excited, just thrilled" the measure cleared committee. "I am so happy. I thank the committee members, the chairman just everybody."

Turning to her granddaughter, Rhodes said, "she's alive today by the grace of God. A lot of children are not. A lot of those parents are burying their kids."

Canasia, a fifth-grader, suffered a concussion and injured her wrist in the crash. "I'm just happy because we're trying to pass the bill," the girl said.

A Hamilton County grand jury has indicted the bus driver, Johnthony Walker, on six counts of vehicular homicide, four counts of reckless aggravated assault and one count each of reckless endangerment and reckless driving.

Police have said Walker was speeding in the bus, which carried 37 students, when it left a curvy section of Talley Road, struck a utility pole, overturned and slammed into a tree.

Walker worked for Durham School Services, a bus contractor.

Contact Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or 615-255-0550. Follow him on Twitter @AndySher1.