Bill mandating school bus seat belts clears first vote

A bill requiring all Tennessee school buses be equipped with safety restraint systems by mid-2023 cleared its first House hurdle Wednesday, report the Times-Free Press. The voice vote came after two Chattanooga physicians gave dramatic testimony about the “terrible night” in November when a Hamilton County school bus crashed, killing six children and injuring others.

“I truly believe that the pain of those families and suffering of their children could have been prevented or lessened,” Dr. Alan Kohrt, a pediatrician and chief medical officer at Children’s Hospital at Erlanger, told Transportation Subcommittee members.

He said that included not just the seat belt bill (HB395) sponsored by Rep. JoAnne Favors, D-Chattanooga, but another Favors bil (HB127)l. It requires school bus drivers be at least 25 years old and have had a five-year clean driving history before getting licensed by the state to transport students.

The Hamilton County grand jury this month indicted 24-year-old bus driver Johnthony Walker on six counts of vehicular homicide, four counts of reckless aggravated assault and one count each of reckless endangerment and reckless driving.

Sitting in the Legislative Plaza committee room’s audience were several parents and their children, who survived the crash.

…Favors’ bill, which would require all new buses to come equipped with seat belts beginning next year, has a huge cost, according to a legislative fiscal analysis. It would cost the state $58.7 million, and local governments $423.4 million, according to the fiscal note.

The costs have some lawmakers balking. And so do arguments by school bus drivers and, in the past, national safety officials, that the compartmentalized construction of bus seats provides adequate safeguards have some lawmakers balking.

Other concerns include whether children will obey and belt themselves in and what happens in a crash if they’re trapped by the seat belts.

Subcommittee Chair Terri Lynn Weaver, R-Lancaster, raised the latter issue of what would happen if there was a fire.

“That’s a big concern,” Weaver said. “God help that bus driver who could not get a kid out.”

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