School Climate & Safety

After Chattanooga School Bus Crash, Officials Renew Push for Seat Belts

By Evie Blad — November 23, 2016 6 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

By Evie Blad and Julie Depenbrock

As families mourn the deaths of five children killed in a school bus accident in Chattanooga, Tenn., some public officials there have renewed calls to mandate seat belts in school buses.

The Monday accident happened when the bus, which was carrying 37 elementary school students hit a tree, flipped on its side, and split open. The bus was not equipped with seat belts. Dozens of children were transported to local hospitals, and anxious parents waited at the scene as first responders worked to free their children from the wreckage.

“The most unnatural thing in the world is for a parent to mourn the loss of a child,” Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke said at a press conference following the accident. “There are no words that can comfort a mother or a father and so today the city is praying for these families.”

Officials charged the driver, Johnthony Walker, 24, with five counts of vehicular homicide, reckless endangerment, and reckless driving. While parallel local and federal investigations into the accident continue, local authorities have said Walker, who was contracted through Durham School Services, was apparently traveling above the 30 mile per hour speed limit.

While many details about the crash remain unclear, State Rep. Gerald McCormick, a Republican from Chattanooga, said he plans to file a bill that would mandate seat belts on Tennessee school buses. McCormick told the Times Free Press newspaper that he couldn’t say for certain whether seat belts would have changed the outcome of the accident.

“No, I don’t know,” he said. “But sometimes you have to look at commonsense. If the bus is rolling over, rather than having bodies flying, it would make better sense to have them strapped in. It’s the same concept you have in a car. I think common sense tells us it would help more often than not.”

Seat Belt Requirements on School Buses

Officials with the National Transportation Safety Board said their review of the accident would include exploring whether restraints would have limited injuries.

“We will be looking in this instance whether seat belts would have made a difference,” NTSB Chairman Christopher Hart said. “It’s too early for us to know at this point.”

Just six states require seat belts on full-size school buses, but not all of them have provided funding to meet the mandate, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

In many ways, the school bus safety debate in Tennessee mirrors a decades-long national debate on the issue.

Lawmakers in the Volunteer State previously voted down a bill that would have introduced school bus seat belt requirements out of concerns it might cost $5,000 to $10,000 to equip a single bus, News Channel 5 reported. That legislation was introduced after a Knox County rollover crash two years ago killed two children and a teacher’s aide.

In a November 2015 speech, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration Administrator Mark Rosekind made headlines when he said the agency believes every school bus should have a three-point seat belt, a reversal of the federal agency’s previous position.

“The position of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is that seat belts save lives,” Rosekind said. “That is true, whether in a passenger car or in a big yellow bus.”

Rosekind did not call for federal rulemaking, but he presented a plan for further research and advocacy about the issue.

Opponents to seat belt requirements have said in the past that a concept called “compartmentalization,” which involves carefully spaced seats and tall seat backs, are enough to keep children safe in the event of an accident.

Even in states with seat belt requirements, seat belts on buses are often worn improperly or not at all, the NTSB acknowledged in a 2011 investigation of a New Jersey bus accident. That investigation concluded that buses that rely solely on compartmentalization or lap belts present a risk to riders. Full, three-point safety belts provide the greatest level of protection but they also require some training for children, officials have said.

Fatalities in school bus accidents are relatively rare, federal data show. While there isn’t a specific breakdown of fatalities in school buses alone, deaths by passengers in buses or large trucks represented just 4 percent of all traffic deaths in 2015, according to the most recent data from NHTSA.

The National Association of Pupil Transportation has responded to calls for seatbelt mandates by calling for more research on how and whether students would use them and how they would affect overall rider safety. Introducing costly mandates may force some school districts to eliminate bus routes, channeling money away from new vehicles and toward compliance, they said.

School transportation organizations “said they believe the prime issue is child safety, especially in regards whether or not the restraints would be worn correctly, impede passenger evacuation in fire or water emergencies or prevent escape in cases of rollovers that incapacitate the driver,” School Transportation News reports.

In an email to Education Week, the director of transportation for the Columbus, Ohio, school district, said decisions about equipping school buses with seat belts are best left to state and local authorities.

“States and local school districts are better able to recognize and analyze school transportation risks particular to their areas and identify approaches to best manage and reduce those safety risks,” said Steve Simmons III, whose district transports 45,000 students a day.

Questions About the Driver

Investigators will also look into the role Walker, the drive played in the accident. That includes a look at his driving history and blood tests for drugs and alcohol, officials said.

A mother of one of the students who died in the accident said she’d previously reported inappropriate behavior by the driver. In one incident, Walker was “slamming on brakes on purpose, making all the kids hit their heads,” Jasmine Mateen told local NBC affiliate WRCB. Two of Mateen’s children were also seriously injured in the wreck.

State driving records show Walker was involved in a September accident when the bus he was driving “sideswiped a Kia Soul going in the opposite direction. This reportedly happened at a blind curve in the road and he allegedly failed to yield,” WMCA reported.

“Overall, Durham School Services has a good record for a company its size. But the company’s buses have already had 17 wrecks in Tennessee so far this year,” the station reports. “In those wrecks, a total of 19 people were hurt and one person was killed.”

Depending on state and local regulations, some districts provide additional screening for bus drivers contracted through private companies, Simmons said.

“I would hope in every case, every driver is vetted by the local districts before they’re used,” he said.

It’s unclear whether the district required additional driver screening beyond what Durham already provided.

Research assistance provided by Librarian Holly Peele and Library Intern Teresa Lewandowski.

Photo: A school bus is carried away Tuesday, Nov. 22, 2016, in Chattanooga, Tennessee, from the site where it crashed on Monday. The bus driver, Johnthony Walker, 24, has been arrested on charges including vehicular homicide, reckless driving and reckless endangerment. The crash killed at least five elementary school students. (Mark Humphrey/AP)

Related Tags:

A version of this news article first appeared in the Rules for Engagement blog.


Commenting has been disabled on edweek.org effective Sept. 8. Please visit our FAQ section for more details. To get in touch with us visit our contact page, follow us on social media, or submit a Letter to the Editor.


Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Teaching Webinar
6 Key Trends in Teaching and Learning
As we enter the third school year affected by the pandemic—and a return to the classroom for many—we come better prepared, but questions remain. How will the last year impact teaching and learning this school
Content provided by Instructure
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Equity & Diversity Webinar
Leadership for Racial Equity in Schools and Beyond
While the COVID-19 pandemic continues to reveal systemic racial disparities in educational opportunity, there are revelations to which we can and must respond. Through conscientious efforts, using an intentional focus on race, school leaders can
Content provided by Corwin
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Equity & Diversity Webinar
Evaluating Equity to Drive District-Wide Action this School Year
Educational leaders are charged with ensuring all students receive equitable access to a high-quality education. Yet equity is more than an action. It is a lens through which we continuously review instructional practices and student
Content provided by BetterLesson

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

School Climate & Safety What the Research Says A Hallmark of School Shooters: Long History of Social Rejection
New research finds that shooters in K-12 schools are more often "failed joiners" than loners.
5 min read
Butler County Sheriff Deputies stand on the scene at Madison Local Schools, in Madison Township in Butler County, Ohio, after a school shooting on Feb. 29, 2016.
Sheriff deputies were on the scene of a shooting at Madison Local Schools, in Butler County, Ohio, in 2016.
Cara Owsley/The Cincinnati Enquirer via AP
School Climate & Safety 4 Myths About Suspensions That Could Hurt Students Long Term
New longitudinal research shows that longer in- and out-of-school suspensions have severe consequences for students.
5 min read
Image of a student sitting at a desk in a school hallway.
Jupiterimages/Getty
School Climate & Safety Photos The Tense and Joyous Start to the 2021 School Year, in Photos
Students are headed back to school with the threat of the Delta variant looming. How is this playing out across the country? Take a look.
School Climate & Safety Former NRA President Promotes Gun Rights at Fake Graduation Set Up by Parkland Parents
A former NRA president invited to give a commencement address to a school that doesn’t exist was set up to make a point about gun violence.
Lisa J. Huriash, South Florida Sun-Sentinel
2 min read
David Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union, speaks during the CPAC meeting in Washington on Thursday, Feb. 10, 2010.
David Keene, the former president of the NRA, promoted gun rights in a speech he thought was a rehearsal for a commencement address to graduating students in Las Vegas. The invitation to give the speech was a set up by Parkland parents whose son was killed in the 2018 massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.
Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call via AP