Meigs County school bus crash renews safety debate

Local News

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) – The school bus crash in Meigs county this week has renewed the debate about students’ safety after the driver and a student were killed.

Governor Bill Lee said he expected to have the issue of school bus safety to come up in the legislature next year.

“I’m certain that will likely be brought forth in the leg again, and study why and other places that do that, what’s the data around it, what are the statistics, why the reasons for and not for that from a safety perspective. I’m sure we’ll all make that analysis going forward,” the Governor said.

The Tennessee Department of Education said the state allocated a grant in 2018 that school districts can apply for to use for school bus restraints. Over two grant cycles, state leaders said $707,500 was been awarded to school districts. That included Dickson, Hickman, Perry, and Robertson Counties.

“When these school busses are sharing the road with semi-trucks and on our highways at 65 miles an hour, this is the only vehicle that is not offering a child the protection of a restraint or a lap-shoulder belt,” said Julie Cooley, IMMI Vice President of corporate communications. “We tell new parents ‘you buckle up your child’ from day one when they come home from the hospital.”

The company, IMMI, said they were the first to engineer seat belts on school busses 20 years ago and they’ve been pushing for this ever since.

“A lap and shoulder belt protect children better than just compartmentalization, which is what the industry has really relied on saying that if a bus is in an accident a child will stay in their compartment – so in between the seats – and they will be protected that way,” said Cooley. “But we know children don’t sit perfectly in their seats and furthermore, not every accident is a head-on collision.”

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, students are about 70 times more likely to get to school safely when taking a bus instead of traveling by car.

“There is no question that seat belts play an important role in keeping passengers safe in these vehicles,” the NHTSA stated on its website. “But school buses are different by design, including a different kind of safety restraint system that works extremely well.”

Cooley said the seat restraints would provide additional protection.

“What they [NHTSA] had determined is that when lap and shoulder belts are worn that they will reduce injuries and deaths by nearly 50 percent in vehicles. That is why we have them in our cars, frankly. It’s not a hundred percent but it’s better than zero,” said Cooley. “In 2015, the administrator of NHTSA at that time recognized that and came out and said every child on every school bus should have a lap and shoulder belt.”

According to Congressman Steve Cohen from Memphis, funding has been challenging in getting this kind of legislation passed over the years.

“Sometimes it’s the schools that own the busses, etc. The expense can come to the school department. So it’s money. The main thing is money. Safety should not be conditioned on the money. If the schools have to pay a little more for the busses or pay more for the installation of the seat belts for the safety of the child, they should do that,” Representative Cohen said. “I think the federal government can participate because it’s an important issue. But at the same time, the locals have different needs. Some of them have the money, some of them may not. Some of them may not even use school busses so I think it should be a shared obligation and the locals who use the busses for their citizens should pay some too.”

According to IMMI, it would cost an additional $7,000 to $10,000 to put lap and shoulder belts on a new school bus. They said it would be about $5 per student each year for the life of the school bus, which is 12-to-15 years.

“It comes down to cost. I really believe that and when you look at that relatively speaking between WiFi on a bus or a new stadium for a high school, it’s just a matter of where the district wants to put their dollars,” said Cooley.

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