Lawmaker prepares legislative push for school bus safety belts

FILE -- In this Nov. 2, 2011 file photo, school buses pick up students at Jason Lee Middle School in Tacoma, Wash. A bill that would require school buses to have seat belts is being considered by lawmakers in Washington, one of more than a dozen states where school seat belt measures are on the legislative agenda this year. Senate Bill 5054 would mandate that all public and private school buses purchased after the bill takes effect have a safety belt for each rider. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren, File)
photo State Rep. JoAnne Favors during a meeting at the Times Free Press offices on May 26, 2015, in Chattanooga.

State Rep. JoAnne Favors intends to use a bill crafted two years ago in response to a Knoxville school bus crash as her starting point to address concerns about bus safety belts in Hamilton County after November's fatal Woodmore Elementary School bus crash.

"I've talked with several people about it," Favors told the Times Free Press this week in anticipation of the General Assembly reconvening next week.

The Chattanooga Democrat said she anticipates talking with all of the state's legislators.

"I don't want this to be a fight," Favors added. "I want it to be something that we all feel would be in the interest of the safety of the children."

Rep. Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, the former House majority leader, said he remains on board with Favors and will do all he can to promote the legislation.

McCormick said one point that critics of seat belt requirements have made in the past - that the National Transportation Safety Board and other federal agencies aren't in favor - is no longer viable.

The NTSB now thinks "it's a good idea," McCormick said, noting former NTSB Chairman Jim Hall, of Signal Mountain, feels the same.

"I think there is a growing consensus that this is a good idea," McCormick said. Yet, he added, "cost is an issue. Having said that, I'm not sure what could be more of a priority than making sure that kids get to school safely."

He said he's gotten calls, including one from a local pediatric surgeon who wants to help promote the issue.

The driver of the bus, Johnthony Walker, 24, faces six charges of vehicular homicide, reckless driving and reckless endangerment in connection with the crash that killed six Woodmore students last Nov. 21.

While some parents have complained about Walker's previous behavior and driving, his employer, Durham School Services, said there was nothing alarming in Walker's personnel file or record with the company that merited termination before the crash.

The NTSB continues to investigate the crash, and it remains unclear whether seat belts would have helped, given the extensive damage to the bus.

In 2015, then-Rep. Joe Armstrong, D-Knoxville, pushed legislation requiring three-point safety belts for students as a 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. Cost was a major factor.

A fiscal analysis on the bill estimated that requiring buses purchased after July 1, 2016, to 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 legislative analysts.

During local lawmakers' conversation with the Times Free Press, other issues surfaced, including background checks and who would be responsible for ensuring students, especially very young children, would be buckled in.

McCormick said he's spoken with Gov. Bill Haslam, who told him the state is working on background checks for drivers and minimum ages.

"I'll be aboard with Rep. Favors on her bill unless they do something exceptional," he said.

Rep. Patsy Hazlewood, R-Signal Mountain, noted that the drivers aren't paid much and "we ask a lot of them."

"One of the things I'd just like to know [is] that they're trained to deal with unruly kids," she said.

Hiring adult monitors to help drivers focus solely on driving would be even more expensive, lawmakers agreed, though Favors noted the former Chattanooga school system had them on their buses before merging with county schools.

County schools use some large contractors such as Durham and independent bus contractors.

"One of the arguments I've heard from school bus drivers is, where is the liability going to stand?" said Rep. Marc Gravitt, R-East Ridge. "Some of these kids, they can't even tie their own shoes - talking about kindergarten and first grade. Can they buckle themselves into a seat belt?"

And with no parent aboard, "who's going to be responsible?" Gravitt asked. "Is it going to be the school bus operator? Is it going to be a monitor?"

While it's unclear how Haslam will come down with his recommendations, proponents have one powerful voice who appears to be in their corner on the safety belt issue.

Ten years ago, a Republican lawmaker tried to pass a bus safety belt bill. It failed.

Today, that same lawmaker is the speaker of the Tennessee House, Beth Harwell.

"I will be asking the House Transportation Committee to evaluate the policy of requiring seat belts on school buses," Harwell told the Times Free Press last month. "I have carried this legislation in the past, and still believe it is the right thing to do."

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