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Meghan Mangrum

Fatal Tennessee school bus crash reopens conversation on the cost of seat belts

The deaths of at least five elementary school students in a school bus crash in Chattanooga have state lawmakers talking about revisiting a seat belt proposal previously tabled because of its price tag.

Rep. Gerald McCormick, a Republican from Chattanooga, said Monday’s deaths of a kindergartener, a first-grader and three fourth-graders bring the need for school bus seat belts into sharper focus, regardless of the costs.

“I know it’s expensive,” McCormick told The Tennessean on Tuesday, noting that education is the state’s biggest budget item. “(But) 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.”

Gov. Bill Haslam agreed that school transportation needs to be reviewed in Tennessee. “It’s time to have that conversation,” he told reporters in Nashville.

Phasing in seat belts on school buses would cost the state $5.5 million every year for 10 years, as well as $33 million in annual local spending, according to an estimate that accompanied a 2015 bill.

That proposal, sponsored by former Rep. Joe Armstrong of Knoxville, was filed after two students and a teacher’s assistant were killed in a Knox County crash in 2014. The measure would have required all of the state’s school buses to be retrofitted with seat belts by 2023, but the seat belt provision never made it out of a House transportation subcommittee. The legislature later approved a scaled-down version that increased the fine and jail time for texting while driving a school bus with students on board. Authorities said texting was a factor in the Knox County crash.

School bus safety has been a persistent issue in Tennessee. In the last week alone,  two non-fatal crashes were in the news, including one in which a Chester County bus rolled over en route to a Beta Club convention in Nashville, sending 23 students to the hospital.

Within days, the fatal Chattanooga crash had state and local authorities rethinking bus safety measures.

The accident occurred Monday afternoon as the bus carried 35 students home from Woodmore Elementary School. The vehicle struck a house and wrapped around a tree. Its 24-year-old driver has been charged with vehicular homicide, reckless endangerment and reckless driving as authorities sought to pinpoint the cause.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which oversees school bus safety, only recently changed its stance on seat belts. For decades, the federal agency’s leaders were adamant that seat belts were unnecessary on school buses and in fact could heighten danger for students by making it harder to evacuate crash sites. But last year, administrators changed the agency’s stance, though stopping short of requiring seat belts.