Tennessee House votes unanimously to approve Gov. Haslam's school bus safety overhaul

Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam speaks at the Tennessee Press Association convention Wednesday, Feb. 22, 2017, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

NASHVILLE - Gov. Bill Haslam's effort to address regulatory problems raised by the deadly crash of a Hamilton County school bus last year won overwhelming approval Monday night in the Tennessee House.

The vote was 96-0.

While Rep. JoAnne Favors, D-Chattanooga, has legislation - scheduled for a committee vote today - that would require new Tennessee school buses come equipped with seat belts, Haslam's legislative approach establishes a new regulatory regimen based on problems state officials saw as helping lead to the Nov. 21 crash, which killed six Woodmore Elementary School children and injured others.

The governor's bill, which comes up in a Senate committee this week, raises the minimum mandatory age of school bus drivers from 21 to 25. And it requires future drivers to first complete a to-be-developed driver education program by the Tennessee departments of Safety and Education before they are allowed to drive.

Other provisions include requiring each local education agency, charter school and charter management organization to appoint a transportation supervisor to investigate any complaint of a safety violation or concern.

Prospective drivers would also have to have a clean driving record.

House Assistant Majority Leader David Hawk, R-Greeneville, who carried the governor's bill, told the chamber that under the regulatory scheme, school officials must acknowledge complaints within 48 hours and the investigation should be completed within 60 days.

Moreover, public and charter schools' buses must carry a visible telephone number on the rear bumper for the public to report complaints. And systems would be required to provide annual notice to students and parents regarding the process for reporting complaints.

While Favors cosponsored the governor's bill, her mandatory school seat belt bill will be back up today in the House Education Administration and Planning Committee.

Under an amendment, it would require all Tennessee school buses purchased as of July 1, 2019, to come equipped with safety systems recommended by the National Transportation Safety Board.

Favors' bill is being fought by some school districts, bus drivers and lawmakers. Among critics is Rep. Terri Lynn Weaver, R-Lancaster, chairwoman of the Transportation Subcommittee, who has raised concerns about its costs and ability of young children to free themselves in the event of a crash or fire.

"We're doing the right thing as a body here by nailing the issue of safety," Weaver told colleagues regarding Haslam's approach. She added that drivers "need to be under a lens."

Rep. Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, thanked Haslam for bringing the legislation. But McCormick, a cosponsor of Favors' bill, pointedly brought up the seat belt issue.

"I would like to point out that the National Transportation Safety Board and the National Pediatric Association have both endorsed putting seat belts on our school buses," said McCormick, the former House majority leader.

The NTSB, which has yet to release its investigation into the Hamilton County school bus crash, has in recent years come out in favor of three-point safety restraint systems on school buses.

So has the head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

The Brainerd school bus crash has generated considerable local and state debate about school bus safety.

Some Woodmore parents and others say they complained about 24-year-old bus driver Johnthony Walker's previous behavior and driving. The bus he drove left a curvy section of Talley Road in Brainerd, struck a utility pole, overturned and slammed into a tree.

Police say Walker was speeding. He has since been indicted on six counts of vehicular homicide, four counts of reckless aggravated assault and one count each of reckless endangerment and reckless driving.

Walker worked for Durham School Services, a bus contractor.

Two top pediatricians at Children's Hospital at Erlanger, who were on duty the day of the Woodmore crash, told Weaver's subcommittee that seat belts would have lessened the severity of injuries for at least some of the children.

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