CHATTANOOGA - As details of Monday’s fatal bus crash in Chattanooga continue to emerge, one Tennessee Republican lawmaker has started the process to draft legislation that would require seatbelts in all school buses in the state.
Rep. Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, said as soon as he heard about the crash, which killed at least five elementary school students, he called the legislature’s legal staff and asked them to draft such legislation.
Although the details of legislation are still being considered, McCormick said he is leaning toward a bill that would require retrofitting every single school bus in the state.
“I know it’s expensive but that’s the biggest budget item we have in the state – education – and 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,” McCormick said.
Discussing how soon he would like to see the school buses retrofitted, which McCormick admitted would likely cost somewhere in the millions, he said he would like to see it done by next fall.
“You might have to replace the actual seats in these buses, including some of the older buses. There has been argument before that we ought to phase this in as we do it and it’s very expensive,” he said. “It’s just a matter of priorities and the state does have a state budget surplus right now. I can’t think of a better way to prioritize it than to do it.”
The former majority leader said Monday’s crash points out the need to prioritize such legislation.
When asked if pursuing the legislation after the crash is the state being reactionary rather than proactive, McCormick said, “Sometimes it takes a tragedy like this to get people to focus on it and realize the seriousness of it. And if this doesn’t do it I don’t know what will.”
The latest discussion in terms of changes to state law in Tennessee comes nearly two years after lawmakers considered a bill that would have required seatbelts in school buses. That legislation was introduced by then-Rep. Joe Armstrong, D-Knoxville, in January 2015, a month after a fatal bus crash in Knoxville killed two students and an adult aide. Armstrong’s bill failed to garner enough support.
Thinking back, McCormick said, “I think there’s no excuse that we haven’t done this a long time ago and all we can do now is try to make up for lost time as best we can.”
McCormick said lawmakers in the Hamilton County delegation were sharing their thoughts with one another via text message on Monday night when he informed them about his plans to pursue legislation.
“I think just about every one of them has replied that certainly they’re on board and want to be helpful,” he said.
The pending legislation comes one day after Gov. Bill Haslam said events like Monday’s and last week’s crash in Nashville could lead officials to begin additional talks about safety.
“To me it’s a good discussion to have,” Haslam said. “I think when this is over it’s time to have a good conversation about everything around school buses.”
Speaking to reporters Tuesday morning, the governor said he was considering heading to Chattanooga to "see if there's ways that we can be helpful."
Gov. Bill Haslam discusses government reaction to school bus safety in the wake of a fatal crash that killed 5 students in Chattanooga.
Haslam reiterated a desire to having conversation about safety, saying, "I think it's time to have all the parties come to the table and have a thoughtful conversation about what can we do to make our school buses as safe as we can."
Noting that traditionally school buses have been the responsiblity of local education authorities, Haslam said the state could take on some of the financial responsibility if state law was changed.
House Majority Leader Glen Casada, R-Franklin, said the legislature is going to take a serious look at school bus safety. "Something is amiss here. I can't explain it today but we've got to look at it and drill down deep and then we've got to solve it," he said Tuesday morning.