Citing deadly Chattanooga school bus crash, U.S. Rep. Cohen presses feds on mandatory seat belt issue

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.
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.

A Tennessee congressman pressed federal transportation officials Tuesday on school bus safety and seat belt issues raised by last year's deadly crash of a Hamilton County school bus in Chattanooga that took the lives of six children and injured many others.

"Six school-aged children were taken ... they were taken and that was wrong," U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn., told National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and National Transportation Safety Board officials during a House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee hearing.

The Memphis congressman questioned why NHTSA officials have yet to issue regulations or intitiate a rulemaking process to require installation of what he termed "life-saving seat belt technology."

That hasn't happened, Cohen said, despite prior NTSB investigative reports in five crashes dating back to 2010 that resulted in that agency's recommendations that school buses be equipped with three-point, lap/shoulder seat belts.

In Tennessee this year, state Rep. JoAnne Favors, D-Chattanooga, and state Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, pushed legislation after the Nov. 21, 2016, crash of the Woodmore Elementary School bus in Brainerd that would have required that new school buses bought beginning July 1, 2019, be equipped with NTSB-approved belt restraint systems.

Both Gov. Bill Haslam and the General Assembly balked at the bill, with some school systems as well as school bus drivers objecting, saying the seat belts weren't needed and that requiring them was cost prohibitive.

Several lawmakers argued as well that the special construction of school buses, known as compartmentalization, made the buses sufficiently safe.

Cohen said the NTSB concluded in investigative reports on earlier school bus crashes in Anaheim, Calif., Chesterfield, N.J., Knoxville, Houston and Gray Summit, Mo., that "compartmentalization was not enough to prevent all injuries, particularly in accidents involving side impact or high-speed rollover."

"Does this recomendation still stand?" asked Cohen, who also wanted to know when NTSB officials expected to issue their final report into the Chattanooga crash as well as a crash earlier that same month in Baltimore, Md., in which a school bus and commuter bus collided, killing six adults.

In response, NTSB member Dr. T. Bella Dinh-Zarr said she couldn't get into many specifics on the ongoing agency investigations into the Chattanooga and Baltimore crashes. But she noted both investigations include looking at "medical fitness as well as screening of drivers in school buses."

Regarding the NTSB's prior recommendation of three-point shoulder-harness seat belts on buses, Dinh-Zarr said it "still does stand."

"We are recommending that states and school boards as they buy new school buses have this type of better restraint systems," she added.

The reason, she said, is that in various prior NTSB investigations into bus rollover or side impact crashes, both of which are said to have occurred in the Chattanooga crash, investigators found the three-point seat belt system was "very important."

"I should say that school buses are very safe vehicles," Dinh-Zaar added, noting they're more safe for transporting children than "almost any other vehicle. But the compartmentalization, while it is an important tool for safety in a school bus, it primarily helps with forward-type collisions."

Cohen noted that NTSB has previously said states should "consider" seat belts when making new bus purchases.

"Consider. Have you thought of anything stronger than 'considering' - mandating because it is such an important safety element that you have endorsed," Cohen said. "And I've got five reports on school bus investigations that I want to enter into the record where they all say that school [bus] seat belts would have saved children's lives."

Dinh-Zaar said "we certainly will consider it. In the past we have always attempted to balance being very prescriptive with the feasibility of some of our recomendations. But we'll certainly take your comments under advisement."

Replied Cohen, who was a Tennessee state senator before his 2006 election to Congress: "I hope so. I've been working on this since the '90s. And I've always had school boards against it, they didn't want to spend the money. And the money should come second to the safety."

The 24-year-old driver in the Chattanooga bus crash, Johnthony Walker, has been indicted on six counts of vehicular homicide and other charges.

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

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