BUS-TED: Tennessee’s Broken Bus Safety System

Following the 2016 deadly school bus crash in Chattanooga, questions are being raised on state and federal levels about whether safety policies and regulations are effective enough or if they need an overhaul.

Are the federal government and the state of Tennessee doing enough?

What are the federal requirements for school bus drivers?

For the most part, the federal government leaves it up the states to regulate school bus drivers. The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) does require states to issue commercial driver’s licenses (CDL) to school bus drivers, including special endorsements for operating specific types of buses. Federal guidelines call on the states to “develop a plan for selecting, training, and supervising persons whose primary duties involve transporting school children in order to ensure that such persons will attain a high degree of competence in, and knowledge of, their duties.”

What are Tennessee’s requirements for school bus drivers?

Tennessee sets a minimum age of 21 for school bus drivers, though some school districts require drivers to be at least 25. They must have a valid CDL with P (16 or more passengers including driver) and S (school bus) endorsements. Drivers must pass a skills and knowledge test for licensure. They must also pass a medical exam. School bus drivers must take four hours of driver training and a test each year. Although not required by the state, some school districts run background checks on bus drivers.

What are Tennessee’s safety requirements for school buses?

School buses must pass an annual safety inspection for the first 15 years of service. Older buses undergo inspection twice a year. In addition, the Tennessee Highway Patrol performs random safety checks of 1-in-10 buses each year. School buses must be retired after 200,000 miles of operation.

Questions Parents Are Asking

How can I be sure my child will be safe on the bus? School buses are generally considered among the safest vehicles on the road. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), a student is 50 times likelier to arrive alive by riding the bus as compared to going by car. Most school bus injuries and fatalities happen not in collisions, but rather they involve students getting on and off the bus. Despite a good overall safety record, on average six students are killed in school bus accidents each year. In 2016, that death toll was reached in a single crash in Chattanooga. In addition to teaching children bus safety, parents can help ensure their children’s wellbeing by pressuring lawmakers and regulators to adopt stricter driver screening and more safety features on buses, particularly the addition of seat belts.

Where do I report a complaint? If you believe your child’s bus is unsafe or the driver is operating it unsafely, you can report your concerns to the public transportation trooper assigned to your region of the state.

What can I do if my child gets hurt on the bus? If your child is hurt while riding or entering or exiting a school bus, you may be entitled to bring a personal injury claim against the school district or the contractor that operates the bus. If someone other than the bus driver, school district or contractor was responsible for the crash, you may be able to bring a claim against the at-fault party and their insurer. Since these cases are often quite complex, it is best to seek advice from an experienced personal injury attorney in Tennessee.

Tennessee-Specific Questions about Policy

What is Tennessee doing to prevent another school bus tragedy? Since the tragic fatal bus crash in Chattanooga last year, some Tennessee lawmakers have proposed steps to prevent another catastrophe. Proposals:

  • To increase the minimum age for bus drivers from 21 to 25. (The driver in the Chattanooga crash was only 24.) This proposal would also require drivers to get a special certification.
  • Ban drivers who had committed a serious driving infraction in the three previous years. The safety of the buses, rather than the drivers, is the focus of a separate proposal that would require school buses to have seat belts.

Why don’t school buses have seat belts? While seat belts have been required in passenger cars since 1968, and Tennessee has had a seat belt law since 1996, most school buses in the state lack the basic safety equipment. It may seem strange that children – the youngest of whom must use booster seats and other more invasive safety equipment in mom and dad’s minivan – are free to ride unrestrained on the school bus. Some states have already passed laws requiring safety belts in school buses, including Florida, Louisiana, Texas, California, New York and New Jersey. Other states, including Tennessee, are considering requirements, particularly in the aftermath of the Chattanooga crash. Does Tennessee license bus drivers who are too young to drive responsibly? The driver in the deadly Chattanooga bus crash was only 24 at the time. Some safety advocates, parents and lawmakers think that’s too young. Proposed legislation would increase the minimum age for school bus drivers in Tennessee from 21 to 25.

Tennessee’s Strategic Highway Safety Plan

Each state has to develop a Strategic Highway Safety Plan. Here is Tennessee’s most recent plan. Some significant items on this plan are:

The Plan adopts a “Toward Zero Deaths” vision statement, which is the vision of a national and collaborative effort entitled Toward Zero Deaths: National Strategy on Highway Safety. The strategy intends to create a culture of safety by bringing stakeholders together to assess the current safety environment and to develop safety strategies from a data-driven process that is refined, implemented, and evaluated to continually plan for a safer future on our roadways.

The goal for the Plan is to reduce the number and rate of fatalities by 10% within the next five-years while reducing the trend of increasing serious injuries by remaining under the 2012 serious injury total of 7,574.

The Plan’s success will be measured by a statistical comparison of actual data to the Plan’s goal statement. This goal is deemed to be appropriate and worthy of our effort to make the roads of Tennessee as safe as they can be. “Driving Down Fatalities” is the slogan for the 2014 Plan because it conveys our commitment to achieving this goal and is consistent with the “Toward Zero Deaths” vision.