|Bus seat belt bill tabled
Local school officials are keeping an eye on a bill that would require all buses ordered to have seat belts for students by July 1, 2019.
House Bill 0395, and its counterpart Senate Bill 0381, call for any bus intended for school purposes to be equipped with a restraint system approved by the national safety board.
The bill was spurred after a deadly school bus wreck in November that killed six elementary-age children and injured more than three dozen others. State Rep. JoAnne Favors, R-Chattanooga, who initially introduced the legislation, pulled the bill Tuesday from consideration until next year.
“We will come back to it in 2018 and try to keep talking of some solutions, and I was speaking to the sponsor this week, JoAnne Favors from Chattanooga, she’s very, very passionate about the bill, and I respect that,” state Rep. Jimmy Matlock, R-Lenoir City, said. “I just think we’ve got to do a lot more work before we get to mandating seat belts in school buses.”
Matlock believes a better solution could be focusing more on drivers by increasing the minimum age to drive a school bus from 21 to 25.
“I think a great deal of the answer is if we’re going to invest money into something let’s do better at helping these companies find drivers,” Matlock said. “They’re having difficulty finding drivers right now. We passed a bill (last) week that said you’d have to be 25 years old. You can’t have a driving record.
“I mean we really tried to strengthen who could be a driver, so now we need to put some more money probably in that area if we’re going to do anything financially,” he added. “... The facts still are more children are injured being transported by parents to and from school than ever who are injured by school buses.”
From 2005-2015, school buses accounted for 41 percent of all buses involved in fatal wrecks, according to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration.
Lenoir City Schools Supervisor of Support Services Mike Sims said the bill could be both positive and negative, but if he had a vote he would oppose.
“There’s pros and cons to all of it,” Sims said. “I just read a couple of weeks ago Louisiana, through their studies of seat belts on buses, they voted their legislature not to require seat belts on buses. Some places like Kingsport, I think they said they’ve been very successful with them.”
A representative from Kingsport City Schools could not be reached for comment.
“Seat belts could be successful but you’ve got to think about all the angles,” Sims said. “You’ve got to think about everything that’s going to keep those children safe.”
One issue is what drivers should do when faced with adversity, such as fires or flipped buses. To help the city’s bus drivers, Sims said the school district will partner with Lenoir City Fire Department in the fall to conduct smoke drills and see how long it takes for the drivers to get six to 10 people off the vehicle.
“We know without question the school bus has got to be vacated in two minutes, we know that,” Matlock said. “So the argument is can the driver — who’s by himself — can the driver get back and help children who can’t get their buckles unlatched and get everybody clear of the bus in two minutes? I have a question that can be done, and therein lies the challenge. Some people say, ‘yes, it can be done.’
“Others say you’re talking about little children up to high-schoolers and in 120 seconds out of the back door and out of the entry door you’ve got to have every child and the driver off and some are going to need assistance,” he added.
A more logical approach would be adding one or two additional supervisors on the bus, Sims said.
Lenoir City operates 12 buses, with manufacture dates ranging from 2007-2016, whereas Loudon County Schools contracts services to seven bus lines. Smith Bus Lines has been with the schools since the 1950s, Director of Schools Jason Vance said.
“I do believe this may cause some added stressors to our drivers in regard to making sure kids are buckled up,” Vance said in an email correspondence. “However, at this point, we have procedures that students should follow that requires them to remain seated and facing forward.”
Obtaining buses with seat belts could be a “very expensive venture,” Sims said, noting a 78-passenger 2016 model bus cost $97,000.
“You add seat belts to it you’re looking at probably $125,000-$130,000 for one bus,” Sims said. “... What if they made this law that you had to have them on every bus? Well, some of these independent contractors there’s no way they could afford all that, because I know what they make and it’d be hard to do.”
Current buses could not be retrofitted with seat belts, Lt. Ray Robinson, Tennessee Highway Patrol director of pupil transportation, said.
“We’re not going to be able to go in and drill holes in buses and put seat belts in unless the body was designed to have seat belts,” Robinson said. “... Retrofitting is not going to be an option in the state of Tennessee. It would not be an option in any other state.”
Lenoir City School has considered adding seat belts to buses regardless of the bill’s passage, Sims said.
Vance said Loudon County Schools has not considered belts at the moment.
“I think if you start that — when it goes into effect — you start them in elementary school, they know that’s going to be part of the show every day, they got to be in that seat belt,” Sims said. “And it’ll be tough on drivers for a while making sure, but ... all of our kids now, you get fined if you don’t have your seat belt on.”