Students board a school bus at Dobyns-Bennett in this file photo. Ned Jilton II.
Legislation requiring school buses to be equipped with seat belts - an ongoing child safety issue with a huge price tag for local school systems - was considered Wednesday by the Tennessee Senate Education Committee.
State Sen. Raymond Finney, R-Maryville, joked that his bill requiring all school buses to have seat belts had a fiscal note "that would rival the national debt."
His bill, assigned to a Senate Education subcommittee, was estimated to cost Tennessee's local governments $386.9 million in one-time expenses and nearly $68 million in recurring expenses.
Another bill, sponsored by state Sen. Thelma Harper, D-Nashville, would require school buses purchased after July 1 to have safety belts. Her bill, with a more than a $40 million fiscal note, was unanimously passed by the committee and referred to the Senate Finance Committee. Harper's bill also would require new school buses to have seat belts by July 1, 2012.
Both bills and other similar bills are opposed by the Tennessee School Boards Association (TSBA).
"There are no conclusive studies to show that having seat belts on school buses would actually improve the safety of students," Stephen Smith, TSBA's director of government relations, told the committee. "Our position has been until there is something conclusive to show that seat belts will, in fact, improve the safety of students, until that time we will oppose mandatory seat belts considering the very high cost that will be placed on school districts."
State Sen. Charlotte Burks, D-Monterey, a committee member who is sponsoring a bill similar to Harper's, challenged Smith's assertion.
"I can't see how anybody can say that if a school bus rolled, how it would not be safer (with seat belts)," Burks said. "(Students) would be just like crackers in there rolling around if a school bus rolled. ... Common sense would say they would be better restrained than they would be rolling around in a bus."
Burks' bill was also unanimously passed by the committee and sent to Senate Finance for further consideration.
A May 2006 National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) report noted school buses are "one of the safest forms of transportation in the United States" but pointed out that, on average, six school age children die every year in school bus crashes as passengers.
In their reports, both NHTSA and the National Transportation Safety Board have concluded that school bus seat belts aren't the best safety solution. Both agencies have advocated a concept called "compartmentalization."
"Through compartmentalization, occupant crash protection is provided by a protective envelope consisting of strong, closely spaced seats that have energy-absorbing seat backs," the May 2006 NHTSA report said.
The NHTSA report noted that pedestrian fatalities account for the highest number of school bus-related fatalities. Children are at "greater risk of being killed in school bus loading zones" than in the bus, and a larger share of the school bus safety effort should be directed to improving the safety of school bus loading zones, NHTSA stressed.
Senate Education Committee Chair Jamie Woodson, R-Knoxville, also pointed out the pitfalls of children being stuck in a school bus that has caught fire.
"The question comes if there is an evacuation need if an engine ... if there is a fire, and the time it would take to unload. ... Those risks are increased with the seat belts in place and the children being restrained," she said.
For more information go to www.legislature.state.tn.us and click on "Legislation." Two of the bills are numbered SB 0098 and SB 0144.