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Despite call to add seat belts to Tennessee school buses, getting there might take much longer than expected

Transportation experts said money and logistics are involved in the decision to currently not have seatbelts.

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Around 23.5 million children ride school buses every day in the U.S. and, for years, many parents have wondered whether states are doing the best they can to keep their kids safe while on the roads. At the forefront of the conversation are seat belts on school buses.

Currently, Tennessee law does not require school buses to have seat belts on them, but as advocates continue to push for change, could seat belts become a requirement on all school buses?

Stephen Richards, who served as director of the University of Tennessee's Center for Transportation Research for more than 20 years, said the issue is not as black and white as people may think. In fact, he pointed out what he learned through many years of research may surprise some people.

"Actually, school bus transportation is one of the safest forms of transportation we have in this country," Richards said.

On average, 815 children are killed every year on the way to and from school, but only 2% of them, or between 5 and 6 kids, are killed on school buses. It turns out 75% die riding in cars or SUVs.

"Any number is too much," Richards added. "But again, it is a fairly low number and it is a very safe way to travel."

That is why the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) had always gone with the approach of compartmentalization when it comes to school buses. That includes very narrow aisles and strong seats with high seat backs and energy absorbing abilities. Officials with that organization had said those would do enough of a good job to keep students safe.

However, after some high profile bus crashes, including ones in Knoxville and Chattanooga, the NHTSA reverted its policy recommendation. The organization now says three-point seat belt use is a safety treatment that is cost effective and worth investing in.

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle in Tennessee have tried to pass legislation to require seat belts on school buses for years. That includes former state representative Rick Staples.

If you have driven through the bridge on Ashville Highway, you have likely noticed some signs with names of people on them. That is because the bridge is named after the three people who died in a 2014 school bus crash. Two of them were children. Staples spearheaded the effort to name that bridge.

"You don not want people to forget those souls that lost their lives in carelessness," he said.

Staples also pushed forward bills that would require school buses to have seat belts. That, though, never became a reality.

"It is one of my greatest regrets not being able to accomplish that," Staples said. "Because every time I pass a school bus or I hear something about an issue with a bus happening, I just think about, 'Man, I let those families down by not getting that accomplished.'"

Only six states in the country require seat belts in school buses: California, Florida, Louisiana, New Jersey, New York and Texas. Transportation experts said there are two main reasons why bills requiring seat belts in school buses rarely make it to a governor's desk. First, it is expensive.

"It is estimated that there are approximately 450 million school buses in the country and it would cost somewhere between $7,000 and a little over $10,000 per bus them with seat belts," Richards emphasized. "School bus travel is probably the safest mode of travel in this country already, so when it comes down to these hard decisions of how do we spend our our safety dollars, these facts get brought to the table."

The NHTSA said adding seat belts would also reduce the number of students each bus could carry because thicker seat backs would mean fewer seat backs.

But despite this, Richards said he does believe Tennessee should strongly consider making seat belts a requirement in state school buses.

"The life of any child is so precious that it is just something that that I think we should invest in our children's safety," he added.

Both Richards and Staples said bills were looking promising in Tennessee until the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Right now, legislators are not introducing any bills. 

If you feel strongly about adding seat belts, you can reach out to your local representative.

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