NASHVILLE — As details of Monday’s fatal bus crash in Chattanooga continue to emerge, one Tennessee Republican lawmaker has started the process to draft legislation that would require seat belts in all school buses in the state.
Rep. Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, said as soon as he heard about the crash, which killed at least five elementary school students, he called the legislature’s legal staff and asked them to draft such legislation.
Although the details of legislation are still being considered, McCormick said he is leaning toward a bill that would require retrofitting every single school bus in the state.
“I know it’s expensive but that’s the biggest budget item we have in the state — education — and if we can’t guarantee or do as much as we can to guarantee the safety of these kids as they go to and from school then the rest of it is pretty useless,” McCormick said.
Fewer than one in five of the state's nearly 9,000 buses had safety restraints in the 2014-2015 school year, the most recent data available from the Tennessee Department of Education.
In Hamilton County, a quarter of the 305 buses had restraints.
The federal government has established 35 safety standards for school bus transportation, and states are free to pass even stricter regulations, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Seat belt effectiveness is still debated and not well-documented, because it depends on the restraint, how it's used and the type of crash, the NCSL says on its website.
In 2008, the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) changed its rule FMVSS 222 to require new small school buses of 10,000 pounds or less to have lap-shoulder belts in lieu of lap belts. For large school buses, it's up to each state or local jurisdiction to decide whether to install seat belts.
California, Florida, Louisiana, New Jersey, New York and Texas have passed some variation of a seat belt law for school buses, but funding has not been appropriated in some states, according to the NCSL. In 2015, 12 states introduced bills that would require school buses to have seat belts installed, but none of the bills passed.
On Nov. 8, 2015, NHTSA Administrator Dr. Mark Rosekind declared that “NHTSA’s policy is that every school bus should have a three-point seat belt,” and indicated that “NHTSA will seek to use all the tools at our disposal to help achieve that goal...”
In Tennessee, McCormick said retrofitting buses would likely cost somewhere in the millions, but he said he would like to see it done by next fall.
“You might have to replace the actual seats in these buses, including some of the older buses. There has been argument before that we ought to phase this in as we do it and it’s very expensive,” he said. “It’s just a matter of priorities and the state does have a state budget surplus right now. I can’t think of a better way to prioritize it than to do it.”
The former House majority leader said Monday’s crash points out the need to address such legislation.
When asked if pursuing the legislation after the crash is the state being reactionary rather than proactive, McCormick said, “Sometimes it takes a tragedy like this to get people to focus on it and realize the seriousness of it. And if this doesn’t do it I don’t know what will.”
The latest discussion in terms of changes to state law in Tennessee comes nearly two years after lawmakers considered a bill that would have required seat belts in school buses. That legislation was introduced by then-Rep. Joe Armstrong, D-Knoxville, in January 2015, a month after a fatal bus crash in Knoxville killed two students and an adult aide. Armstrong’s bill, which did not call for a retrofitting of seat buses but sought new vehicles, failed to garner enough support.
Armstrong's bill would have increased state and local expenditures by $5.5 million and $33.1 million, respectively, according to a fiscal note.
Thinking back, McCormick said, “I think there’s no excuse that we haven’t done this a long time ago and all we can do now is try to make up for lost time as best we can.”
McCormick said lawmakers in the Hamilton County delegation were sharing their thoughts with one another via text message on Monday night when he informed them about his plans to pursue legislation.
“I think just about every one of them has replied that certainly they’re on board and want to be helpful,” he said.
On Tuesday afternoon, Rep. JoAnne Favors, D-Chattanooga, whose district is where the crash occurred, said she plans to introduce seat belt legislation when the legislature convenes in January.
Earlier in the day, McCormick said he would be fine with Favors taking the lead role on the legislation.
The pending legislation comes one day after Gov. Bill Haslam said events like Monday’s and last week’s crash in Nashville could lead officials to begin additional talks about safety.
“To me it’s a good discussion to have,” Haslam said. “I think when this is over it’s time to have a good conversation about everything around school buses.”
Speaking to reporters Tuesday morning, the governor said he was considering heading to Chattanooga to "see if there's ways that we can be helpful."
Haslam reiterated a desire to have conversation about safety, saying, "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."
Noting that traditionally school buses have been the responsibility of local education authorities, Haslam said the state could take on some of the financial responsibility if state law was changed.
House Majority Leader Glen Casada, R-Franklin, said the legislature is going to take a serious look at school bus safety.
"Something is amiss here. I can't explain it today but we've got to look at it and drill down deep and then we've got to solve it," he said Tuesday morning.
Stephen Richards, who heads up the Southeastern Transportation Center, a federally funded center that studies safety, encouraged Tennessee lawmakers to not only reexamine adding seat belts to school buses, but also tighten standards around who can drive buses.
"Too many of these accidents seem to be not only driver-related, but behavior on the part of the driver that's way over the line," he said.