Legislation spurred by a 2016 Chattanooga school bus crash that killed six children passed the Tennessee Senate Education Committee Wednesday with seven senators saying yes and one member passing.
The bill now goes on to the Finance Committee.
On Tuesday, the House Transportation Committee approved the bill on a 9-7 vote, moving it along.
The bill would require all new Tennessee school buses purchased beginning July 1, 2019, to come equipped with safety-restraint systems approved by the National Transportation Safety Board. In a successful effort to cut costs to state and local government, the bill sponsor earlier this week removed the requirement that all buses must have the safety belts as of July 1, 2023. Instead, the bill relies on new belt-equipped buses eventually replacing buses without belts.
State Representative Terri Lynn Weaver, a member of the House Transportation Committee and Subcommittee Chair of Transportation, voted no saying she has reservations about the bill. “The argument is what would happen if you have children as young as kindergarten and first graders strapped in seatbelts and the bus goes off a bridge into water or a fire ignites. In two minutes a bus can be in flames. How are these children going to get out of these buses? Who is going to make sure they get unlatched? We have to consider that,” Representative Weaver told WJLE in a LIVE Radio interview Friday morning.
“Since 2009 we have had ten deaths of children and one adult in school bus accidents and that is eleven deaths too many but one school bus accident on a bridge or in a fire with children who cannot get out as quickly as normal, you could have 20 or 30 deaths,” she added.
There are an estimated 9,000 school buses in Tennessee with some 600 of them replaced annually, according to a legislative fiscal note. A new bus costs about $100,000. Having them come equipped with seat belts adds about $10,000 more per bus, the fiscal note says.
The move to drop the mandatory 2023 implementation date for seat belts slashed projected costs of the bill dramatically. It now would boost state expenditures by $2.15 million a year going forward, with the money going to local schools. Local schools' cost would be $12.91 million annually going forward.
Originally, the bill would have cost the state nearly $12 million a year for five years and school systems about $70 million a year over a six-year period.