Seat belts on school buses in Tennessee - WRCBtv.com | Chattanooga News, Weather & Sports

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Seat belts on school buses in Tennessee

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CHATTANOOGA, TN (WRCB) -

Channel 3 is learning firsthand how school buses would operate if seat belts were required.

The push for seat belts comes in response to the deadly Woodmore bus crash last November. 

As lawmakers debate over the idea of adding belts, Channel 3 was part of a safety drill with two buses, one with seat belts and one without.

There are two sides to the seat belt debate.

One side says seat belts save lives. Others worry that unbuckling may put students in danger in a fire or crash. 

It's a race against the clock for Ernest L. Ross Elementary School students in Cleveland. 

"We'd have to go really quickly and get off the bus quickly," Maddie Garcia, a 3rd grader at the school said.

Garcia knows the drill. Bus riders are expected to participate once a year and bus drivers know their role. 

"If that bus is now dangerous to be on, I'm going to stay calm and bring those kids off that bus," April Miller, a school bus driver for Cleveland City Schools said.

The drill could change if legislation passes and seat belts are added to school buses state-wide. 

"Seat belts are needed to prevent needless injuries and as we saw in Woodmore, tragic deaths," Jim Hall, former NTSB chairman said.

The National Transportation Safety Board recommends adding 3-point seat belts to new school buses to save lives in crashes or rollovers.

It's a move former NTSB Chairman Jim Hall calls a practical start, but it's not a popular one.

Tennessee would be only the seventh state to add belts to buses. 

"It takes what they call the tombstone technology in Washington. You have to have unfortunately tragedies and deaths in order to get the legislation in place," Hall said.

There have been 13 deadly school bus crashes in Tennessee since 2012, according to the state's Department of Safety and Homeland Security.

That includes the Woodmore crash that killed six students last fall.

"What happened with the passing of the six kids in Chattanooga, it didn't just affect the people in Chattanooga, it affected everyone. It affected every driver," Miller said.

Soon, it could affect every drill.

Channel 3 wanted to put seat belts to the test to see how they change a routine evacuation.

By following instructions, Maddie Garcia and her 21 classmates were able to make it off the bus in less than a minute. That's half the time state officials say it takes for a bus to go up in flames. 

Channel 3 put a group to the test using a bus for special needs that is retrofitted with belts.

Keep in mind the bus was smaller and can hold fewer students. Students made it off the bus in plenty of time, but reported a few hang ups.  

"It was kind of harder to get off the bus because we had to unbuckle really quickly and it was kind of hard to have the seat belts," Garcia said.

It's a test that has the Director of Operations for Cleveland City Schools thinking about additional training if the seat belt bill is adopted.

New policies would also need to be created since there is not one now. 

"Bus drivers are nervous about how it will affect them if they have an accident and there's a child who's unbuckled," Hal Taylor, Director of Operations for Cleveland City Schools said.

"Trying to get 60 kids versus 20 kids to listen to you and follow your directions especially in an emergency situation is definitely going to take more time," Miller said.

April Miller can't help but remember Woodmore and question her role in the event of a crash.

"If something were to happen, how do I decide which child I'm going to bring off of the bus if I can't get to all of them?," Miller said.

More safety measures, more training, and more questions. Some lawmakers say it's too much to ask of a bus driver.

"I don't think this is a good piece of legislation. I think it is based on emotion any piece of legislation that's based on emotion is usually not good policy," State Rep. Terri Lynn Weaver, (R) Lancaster previously said.

"I don't think passing the law will give us answers. I think it's going to, initially, propose a lot more questions," Taylor said.

The other big question is how to pay for seat belts. The state may end up footing the bill and it's a big one. 

Previous story: Tennessee school bus seat belt bill placed in budget limbo

A bus costs on average $100,000. Add the belts and it's another $10,000.

For example, Cleveland City Schools has 26 buses that would have to be replaced. That adds up to nearly $3 million.

If the bill passes, new buses purchased after July 2019 would have seat belts.

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