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

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By Evie Blad and Julie Depenbrock

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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.

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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)

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