NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WVLT) -- A divided conversation about whether to place seat belts on all new school buses unfolded during the House Transportation Committee meeting on Wednesday. Tennessee lawmakers seemed at odds over the best course of action.
In an effort to reduce the price tag of House Bill 0395, Rep. JoAnne Favors (D-Chattanooga), amended the measure to apply only to future buses, which she said would cost far less than the original suggestion of retrofitting all buses.
Cost was a major concern for Rep. Terri Lynn Weaver (R-Lancaster) who said, "I believe the cost was something like $12 million annual to districts like mine."
But her strong opposition didn't end there. Rep. Weaver said seat belts could actually kill more students in an emergency.
"My biggest concern is an incident would happen with 50 to 80 children on a bus, and it's upside-down, and kids are hanging in their seat belt, they can't get out," she said. "We heard testimony where a bus could be totally engulfed in flames within two minutes. Who is going to make sure those children are put in a seat belt before moving, and who is going to be in that bus helping these children get out should, God forbid, it go over a bridge into water, be caught on fire?"
Rep. Weaver said 10 children and one adult were killed in school bus accidents since 2009.
"To me, those numbers are very low," she said. She predicted that number would be much higher had children been restricted by seat belts.
Rep. Eddie Smith (R-Knoxville) disagreed.
"Unless you've sat down with the parents who lost children, and you've had to look at the pictures of the bus that was stood up and the blood running down the side and know that kids lost their lives, you can't sit here and say that it will cost more lives, it's already costing them," Smith said.
It's an emotional topic for Tennesseans. In December 2014, two children and one adult were killed in a crash involving two school buses on Asheville Highway at John Sevier Highway. Bus number 44 served Chilhowee Intermediate School, and bus number 57 served Sunnyview Primary School. Bus 44 suffered front end damage; bus 57 flipped on the side.
Then, in November of 2016, six children were killedwhen a Chattanooga school bus carrying 37 students crashed outside a home.
If passed, the bill would require any bus ordered or purchased on or after July 1, 2018, for the purpose of being owned, operated, or leased by a public or private elementary or secondary school or school system, and that is intended to be used to transport students to or from school or to or from extracurricular activities and other school events, to be equipped with a restraint system approved by the national transportation safety board for the driver and all passengers.
Any bus owned, operated, or leased by a public or private elementary or secondary school or school system, and that is intended to be used to transport students to or from school or to or from extracurricular activities and other school events, must no later than July 1, 2023, be equipped with a restraint system approved by the national transportation safety board for the driver and all passengers.
The Transportation Committee voted to revisit the measure on April 17 at 9:00 a.m. to allow more time for discussion.