Bipartisan bill would require all school buses have safety restraint systems for kids by mid-2023

NASHVILLE - Joined by four House colleagues, state Rep. JoAnne Favors, D-Chattanooga, on Thursday filed her school bus seat belt bill addressing safety concerns after the Nov. 21 bus crash that killed six Woodmore Elementary School students.

Beginning July 1, 2018, the bill will require safety restraint systems on any Tennessee school bus ordered or purchased by a public or private school or system intended to transport students, as well as for extracurricular activities and other school events.

By July 1, 2023, the requirement for seat belts - which is approved by the National Transportation Safety Board - would apply to all Tennessee school buses.

Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, said Thursday he has agreed to carry the Senate companion bill "out of respect" for Favors despite his concerns.

"I called her [Thursday] morning and told her I'd carry it in the Senate but for her to let the House hear it first, that I had reservations about that," Gardenhire said.

He said he had wanted to wait to "see the National Transportation Safety Board come back with their final investigation [recommendations] before I jump in with any conclusions or anything else. But I think that JoAnne needs to have the opportunity to have her bill heard and her views heard "

Rep. Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, the former House majority leader, and Patsy Hazlewood, R-Signal Mountain, also signed on to the bill, as did two Knox County legislators - Rep. Eddie Smith, R-Knoxville, and Rep. Rick Staple, D-Knoxville.

Two young Knoxville students and a teacher's aide were killed in a 2015 bus crash. The bus driver, who later died, was texting when he crashed into a second bus.

Gov. Bill Haslam has his own ideas about school bus safety. On Wednesday, House Assistant Majority Leader David Hawk, R-Greeneville, introduced the administration's approach, which omits the mandatory safety belt requirement and focuses on other areas.

It raises age requirements for school bus drivers from 21 to 25 and imposes new requirements on school systems, bus drivers and contractors, along with enhanced training and communications about driver problems.

Favors' bill is the third such mandatory bus seat belt bill introduced in the Tennessee General Assembly in the past decade. The two others never got off the ground amid objections from bus operators and others over the associated multi-million-dollar costs to upgrade buses.

"It's needed because you do need restraints," Favors said earlier this week. "I'm hoping it will pass [this year], but if it doesn't, it will involve us all in dialogue about this. And we'll just keep doing it until we get it passed."

On Thursday, Favors called for a moment of silence on the House floor in memory of the children killed in the crash.

McCormick said he intends to help Favors all he can, noting proponents are "trying the best we can to make it a bipartisan effort."

The six Woodmore children were killed in November on Talley Road in Brainerd when their bus, driven by Johnthony Walker, 24, veered out of control and overturned. Police allege Walker was speeding. He faces six counts of vehicular homicide and reckless driving.

Records obtained by the Times Free Press show Walker, who was working for Durham School Services under a contract with Hamilton County Schools, was involved in two previous crashes and underwent retraining with Durham after those incidents.

Parents, students and school administrators also complained about Walker's reckless driving and dealings with children before the fatal crash, according to Hamilton County Schools records.

But David Duke, CEO of Durham, told the Times Free Press that Hamilton County Schools did not share all of those complaints with Durham. Duke said the company could act only on the information it was given.

Haslam's legislation, among other measures, seeks to ensure that doesn't happen again.

Since the crash, Durham has implemented an electronic system to track complaints, allowing both the school district and Durham a way to see any complaints made against drivers and how they were handled, aimed at preventing complaints from slipping through the tracks.

The NTSB continues to investigate the accident. The agency hasn't said whether seat belts could have limited the number of fatalities or seriousness of the injuries sustained.

The issue of school bus seat belts has long been debated. 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, said the agency's position is that seat belts save lives.

"That is true whether in a passenger car or in a big yellow bus," he said. "And saving lives is what we are about."

Some have raised concerns about ensuring that students, from the very young to unruly teenagers, actually use the seat belts if they are available, as well as the potential liability issues for bus drivers and owners.

The last bill was brought to Tennessee lawmakers in the wake of the 2015 Knoxville crash.

It went nowhere in 2016, despite having the same phased-in requirements on newly purchased school buses to spread costs over a period of years.

The National Association of Pupil Transportation estimates that fitting school buses with seat belts costs between $7,000 and $11,000 per bus.

A fiscal analysis on the 2015 Tennessee bill estimated that requiring buses purchased after July 1, 2016, be equipped with safety restraint systems 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.

McCormick has suggested looking at the state's estimated $1.1 billion surplus of one-time revenues as a way to help address cost issues.

California, Florida, Louisiana, New Jersey, New York and Texas have varying existing school bus seat belt laws, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. At least 17 states, including Tennessee, now have pending legislation regarding requiring them.

ABC News recently reported that according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, an estimated 23.5 million children use school buses to get to and from school and school-related activities. On average, six school-age children die each year in school bus crashes as passengers.

Contact staff writer Andy Sher at or 615-255-0550. Follow him on Twitter @AndySher1.