Tennessee school bus seat belt bill placed in budget limbo

(file photo)

KNOXVILLE (AP/WATE) — A bill to put seat belts on Tennessee school buses is in budget limbo.

The House Finance, Ways & Means Subcommittee put the legislation on hold Wednesday because it’s currently unfunded in the governor’s budget plans.

Previous story: School bus safety measures advance in Tennessee Legislature

Fiscal estimates say the bill would add $12.9 million in annual costs to school districts and $2.2 million in yearly state costs. The bill was changed to make the state pay the whole cost. Rep. JoAnne Favors, the Chattanooga Democratic bill sponsor, believes the costs were overstated because the seating capacity would likely drop by at most two seats per bus, not 12.

The idea got new momentum after last year’s tragic wreck in Chattanooga that left six students dead. Even with this latest obstacle, the debate over this likely isn’t over this bill.

“Buckle up Buttercup. Time to go,” said Stacie Tate, a mother of an 8-year-old boy.

We tell our children to strap on their seat belt every time they get in a car, but Stacie Tate feels seat belts don’t work the same way in buses as they do cars.

“You’ve got your car which is two seats, the front and the back, compared to a bus that is 40 feet long,” said Tate. “If the bus catches on fire, it’s going to be easier for these kids to get off the bus without seat belts.”

Tate fears students could get trapped during an accident. Her concern comes not only as a mother, but also as a former bus driver. She’s worried what children could do to one another, if given the opportunity.

Tate adds, “Kids are very unruly and would probably use them as weapons. I wouldn’t put it past them about popping someone in the head.”

A modern school bus can typically hold more than 70 children at a time. If the bill passes, bus drivers would have to make sure every student is buckled in. Doug Davis, a school bus contractor and driver for Davis Bus Lines says that’s a big responsibility.

“Trying to monitor and see that all three students in each and every seat is buckled in, is just nearly impossible,” said Davis.

If an emergency situation were to happen, Davis says that’s when time is sensitive to get every student off the bus and to safety.

“In the event of say an emergency or a fire, we have less than three minutes to evacuate that bus,” said Davis.

While seat belts aren’t yet required on school buses in Tennessee, some of the newer, bigger buses come with a belt buckle for special needs children.

Davis adds, “Some of the seats toward the front of the bus do have a belt system.”

Davis says the harnesses help to restrain children who could put themselves or others at risk without it. He adds that these seats are built to protect children during a crash and remaining seated is the best safety solution in a school bus ride.

Co-sponsor Rep. Eddie Smith released this statement:

As HB 0395 (seat belts on school buses bill) continues to advance through the General Assembly, it now faces the House Finance committee.  The bill has not been funded through the budget therefore any funding must be appropriated by the General Assembly.  Should the funding not be possible this year, we will work with Governor Haslam to include it in the next fiscal year budget. While we all admit that no one thing can fully stop horrible accidents, we must do everything in our power to ensure our children are as safe as possible while in the care of our school districts.

(Portions copyright 2017 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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