NASHVILLE - Gov. Bill Haslam says "it's time to have that conversation" about Tennessee school bus safety in light Monday's Chattanooga tragedy in which at least five young children were killed and others injured when their bus careened off Talley Road.
"We had a wreck last year in Knoxville with a school bus, last week in Nashville and obviously the tragedy in Chattanooga," Haslam told reporters this morning at the state Capitol. "I think it's time to have all the parties come to the table and have a thoughtful conversation about what can we do to make our school buses as safe as we can."
Hamilton County school system driver Johnthony Walker, 24, has been arrested and charged with five counts of vehicular homicide, reckless endangerment and reckless driving, according to his arrest affidavit.
Witnesses said Walker was speeding, the affidavit states. He remains in custody on $107,500 bond with a scheduled Nov. 29 court date.
Haslam said that "anybody who saw anything of the Chattanooga situation yesterday, you're heart's broken. It's a tragic situation when you have little kids involved. and so I think that's part of our job to come back and saying are we doing everything we can to ensure safety on school buses."
Tennessee's individual local school districts are in charge of buses and bus safety, either operating buses themselves or through contracting with individual drivers or companies. Most buses don't have seat belts and school authorities have been resistant to changes in state law requiring them to do so, citing enormous expenses.
Asked whether it would make sense to have state rules, Haslam said, "again, I honestly don't know that. That's why I said we need to have all the parties come to the table. When you have three situations like this in basically about a year, I think that it's incumbent upon us to have that conversation about are the regulations right or not.
"But," he added, "I think until we bring all the people to the table it's hard to say that."
With Walker being just 24, Haslam said "it's a valid question" to ask about how old someone should be to drive a school bus and what type of experience should be required.
"I don't know the answer to that," the governor said. "But I think when we sit down and, again we've had three incidents in a little over a year, that has to be part of the discussion and everything - from driver experience to driver recruitment."
But the governor noted that he thinks most school officials already "would tell you we have a really hard time recruiting school bus drivers. A lot of of our rural areas particularly. I met with them earlier in the week and that was the No. 1 issue they had was finding people to drive school buses."
Asked about the Chattanooga crash, state House Majority Leader Glen Casada, R-Franlkin, said "we're going to look at this. Something is amiss here. I can't explain it today. We got to look at it, and drill down deeply and then solve it. It's heart breaking. . We got to figure it out."